New York

Larry Poons

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Larry Poons’ status as the last certified modernist painter interests me, independently of any particular painting. In 1972 Michael Fried considered it a matter of “conviction” that Poons’ thick, dense, poured paintings were the authentic successors to the school of Olitski. Poons’ work is crude, not lyrical; gloppy rather than slick; clotted and clogged rather than sensual and efficient. Looking back over the ’70s, Poons acts as a barometer of change in the look of a lot of abstract painting—a look which Ralph Humphrey, Ron Gorchov, and even artists like Rodney Ripps share, even though they could not be termed modernist in the Friedian sense. For me, the change ii; sensibility has come to a head in Barbara Rose’s “Painting of the ’80s” show, a change from the rigor of Newman to the emotional messiness of Still. Poons’ paintings look more and more like Still’s in their sluggishness, and absolutely unlike Pollock’s or Louis’, whose work he once was said to have synthesized.

The new paintings are neither abstract nor pictorial. The “skin” of paint is very aggressive on its own terms, but it is not really interesting enough in itself to capture and hold our attention. The question I kept asking myself was what is he hiding? The paint acts as a barrier, like some impenetrable bark, leprous skin, or lava flow. Rather than wondering about what is there, I wonder what Poons has eliminated, decided to cover up. These paintings are extremely thick, with hundreds of colors and lots of surface incident. They are very slow to look at and were probably slow to make. Poons’ most explicit concern seems to be with paint being dragged around, with its build up, with its drying time. All the slowness does not yield to a satisfying conclusion, and stays diffuse and aimless. In the last three years color has gone from beige and tans to grays, a kind of no-color accomplished by the use of grayed complementaries in close, splintered proximity—like burnt orange and olive green. Color has gone, in other words, from fleshy to visceral—literally, anatomical insides, intestinelike color, multicolored mush that gives the overall impression of a dirty neutral.

I never liked Poons’ career-opening dot/ellipse paintings or his career-switching elephant skin paintings (although I liked the guts it took to change styles). I do think, however, that the first group of drip/splash paintings are quite attractive. There is one in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts about a mile long with a gorgeous expanse of emerald green-blue. The painting is “about” a kind of bravura performance, a specialized kind of painting craft, and the technical effort necessary to accomplish such a unified gesture on such a huge surface.

This should not be confused with any supposed intellectual content. According to Michael Fried, Poons’ main ambition is that “every grain or particle or atom of surface compete in presentness with every other.” This is complicated by the competition of color tactility: “color and tactility contend with one another for possession of the picture-surface.” If that’s what makes the paintings important, or good, then they aren’t either. The new splash/drip/glob paintings must be seen close up, must be read up and down (most of them are tall and skinny), and need to be explored for bits of color which appear and disappear. Presentness is ruled out from the start, and competition is not between color and tactility but between the viewer’s impatience and the paintings’ obdurate physicality. Poons is not quite up to Fried’s metaphors of the free market system (competition between all individual parts) and capitalism (possession of the surface, like ownership of the property). My bark, lava, and intestinal metaphors are only slightly more adequate, but I think they stick closer to the actual manipulations of paint.

Jeff Perrone