New York

Larry Poons

Lawrence Rubin Gallery

Larry Poons showed more of his heavily textured abstractions at Rubin. Not much different from last year’s, these are more calculatingly cropped, more often interrupted with wide scraped areas serving as elements of balance. The question of allover painting has disappeared from Poons’ work: these are large abstract machines whose internal workings are traditionally compositional. They have aningratiating energy, an aura of per sistent struggle and unrelenting concern to establish a purity of esthetic motive, but this is their least interesting quality. They are more striking in their innocence, their suggestion that the artist is un aware of certain unproductive contradictions in his work between intention and achieved result.

These contradictions began to appear with Poons’ first poured paintings. In an interview with Phyllis Tuchman (Artforum, December, 1970), he said he was surprised to learn that the surfaces of his paintings evoked, for many viewers, an image of dried, cracked mud. I find it almost unbelievable that he could be surprised at this association: it was the most obvious and immediate fact of the work. Having learned of the parched earth effect from the response to these paintings, Poons subsequently found a technical means to reduce it. But similar ones have appeared in its stead, and one can only assume that Poons is likewise innocent of this fact. One can only assume that he thinks his later paintings have dealt exclusively with his intended concern, which is, as he puts it in his interview, a con cern with a “flow of color” that stops, that becomes sufficient when his “taste and sensibility” tell him “there’s something there.”

He says: “I like thickness. I like texture,” but he is not apparently willing to see these qualities as other than bearers of his color flow. That is, he intends only a certain kind of self-sufficient color and preserves an innocence about the nature of the surface he creates in working toward that color. He says: “There’s no meaning to it [the thick paint].” He deprecates the search for meanings as a reliance on “rules about how it should be.” “We don’t have any theories; we don’t have any plans or formula.” That may be, but by intending a color flow free from theoretical concerns—by attempting to paint in a condition of critical naïveté—Poons has allowed numerous accidental meanings to enter into the results he achieves. This is obvious from a look at his latest show, from the jarring incongruity between his color field heritage and the nature of his surface.

I’m not saying nor would anyone say that art depends entirely on theory, but I can’t agree with the contrary notion that art must be somehow prior to theory or “elevated” above it in a realm of individual sensibility. An artwork must allow for the existence of theory; at the very least, it must anticipate the theoretical or intellectual component of an experience as critically and his torically oriented as that of looking at abstract painting. These remarks, which can usually be left unsaid, are necessary in pointing out that Poons has failed to make adequate allowances for and anticipations of his viewers’ theoretical intelligence. This is a failure of his own intelligence. And it’s no good suggesting, as Poons does, that his private “taste and sensibility” are all he need consider. In attempting to limit his responsibility this way, he has produced paintings that simply do not take into account what they are. They are presented as “flow(s) of color” having attained a completeness within the limits of abstraction, a self—reliance able to exelude everything but the immediacies of Poons’ sensibility, while in fact they are much more. First of all, they are heavily textured slabs of acrylic with strong associational, almost representational overtones—they look like rain with a somber rainbow tinting, and they look, to be blunt, like romantically prettified vomit; on the art historical plane, they work as tough-guy evocations of Monet, and this brings one back to representation—they look like the lily pads in a storm. Further, the cropping and the interruptions of the surface texture align these works with the standards of traditional European composition—they seem to be exercises in a very familiar mode of pictorial beauty.

Poons has backed himself into a corner where his intention has very little to do with what he achieves. This may be all right with him. He says in his interview that “you’re able to round up maybe two or three people who are the audience for your work, who know what you’re doing, what you’re trying to do.” This is elitism at the end of its rope, where the difficulties of elitist theory collapse into a rejection of theory, a rejection of all but an untouchable “sensibility” which the artist shares by coincidence with a few other people. All I have to say is that I have no aspiration to be one of those people: it seems so unrewarding, so limiting, so lacking in the kind of intelligence necessary to get beyond mere critical intelligence to an adequate—much less an admirable—complexity and selfconsciousness. To accept Poons’ recent art requires a sensibility of willed, even willful ignorance of the full range of esthetic possibility.

Carter Ratcliff