PRINT February 2003


Larry Poons

Barry Schwabsky looks back on the early days of Larry Poons’s career, when a studio visit by artist Ray Johnson ultimately led to Poons’s first one-man show, at the Green Gallery in 1963.

BEFORE THERE WAS THE ART WORLD, there was bohemia. And you immediately realize that’s what Larry Poons is talking about when he discusses his early days in New York. Perhaps you’ve heard distant rumors that, before Starbucks, artists and intellectuals used to hang out in Greenwich Village coffee shops. Poons didn’t just hang in one; along with painter friends Don McAree and Howard Smythe, he ran it—the Epitome, at 165 Bleecker Street, in 1959 and early 1960. It became a gathering place and performance venue not only for Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (“He used to bang on my guitar like a bongo drum,” Poons recalls), but also for a group of young musicians and artists who had taken the composition course John Cage was teaching at the nearby New School for Social Research, among them Dick Higgins, Al Hansen, and others who would subsequently become part of the Fluxus movement.

“It was fun, loose—nobody was doing anything in what we’d now call a mainstream world,” Poons says. “Nothing academic was going on”—although as the New York Audio Visual Group, Poons, Hansen, and Higgins did take part in “A Program of Advanced Music” at the 92nd Street Y in April 1959, performing scores by the latter two.

Poons had briefly audited Cage’s course as well. “I was always a musician,” Poons explains. “I still play, still write songs, and I’m good at it.” In high school in Great Neck, Long Island, Poons had immersed himself in, of all things, country music; from there he went on to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. “I didn’t go to music school to learn how to play Hank Williams, but that was all I could do. I guess they needed the money. I wanted to be Beethoven, write string quartets and all that.” Running up against his limitations as a musician, he realized that painting was coming more easily to him, so he transferred to the nearby School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Poons was painting hard-edged geometrical abstraction; the gestural approach of a de Kooning was anathema to him at the time, surprising as this may seem to viewers who associate Poons with the intensely physical paint handling of his work since the ’70s. After leaving the museum school and moving to New York, he painted in various studios and apartments downtown—sometimes even at the Epitome. When the coffee shop folded, he drifted away from McAree and Smythe, but when he took a studio on Front Street he began to meet the Coenties Slip group—Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman, and others. He had been bowled over by Barnett Newman’s 1959 show at French & Co.; Frank Stella was becoming a name to reckon with. “I was struggling to make my paintings simpler,” Poons recalls. “I was using graph paper to plot points. Then I would start connecting the points and would end up with these zigzagging shapes and that’s what I was painting.”

Music was still important to Poons; he now became close with the composer LaMonte Young. “LaMonte was a really dynamic force. Though Cage was older and more known, LaMonte had as much influence. Phil Glass, Steve Reich, and a lot of other people were inspired by him. He was it.” The artist Ray Johnson became another important connection. “Ray was connected to everything that was going on. He became my new painting mentor as well as a good friend.”

Poons was unsatisfied with the zigzag paintings he’d been making. Pushing his attempt to simplify even further, he decided to try making a painting of the dots themselves without any lines connecting them. The result was a fifty-six-inch-square painting, Cripple Creek, 1962, with a simple but highly charged coloristic formula: clashing complementaries, green dots on a red field. It was made with a product called Fabspray, a spray-on fabric dye—“something you’d use to change the color of your couch.” One day Johnson dropped by the studio. He suddenly pointed at Cripple Creek and demanded, “What’s that?”

“That was all I needed,” Poons says. “The way he pointed and said that, I knew I really had something. Ray pointing his finger was as big a break as I could ever get—in hindsight.” Johnson sent the high-profile Met curator Henry Geldzahler to take a look, and Geldzahler said, “I’ve got to tell Dick [Richard] Bellamy to come here.” But Poons wasn’t thinking about dealers. “The first thing I thought was, hey, I can go big with this, like Barnett Newman.” Thus began the series of optically assertive, anticompositional paintings that remain among the most vivid visual manifestations of New York in the ’60s.

Two days later Bellamy (then director of the Green Gallery) showed up with collector Robert Scull in tow. “Dick took that first painting, and a day and a half later he’d sold it.” Bellamy hung Poons’s second dot painting, The Enforcer, 1962, in a group show at Green in January 1963, next to a painting by Frank Stella. Why the title’s reference to a character in the then popular TV series The Untouchables? Because, as Poons puts it, “Those paintings really hammered your eyes”—or as Michael Fried would write in Art International of Poons’s first one-person show (also at Green) later that year: “Under the gallery’s bright lights the dots tend to flicker and jump and blink and flare until we begin to fear for our retinas if not our minds.”

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.