Richard Pousette-Dart

There is nothing post-Modern about Richard Pousette-Dart’s dazzling paintings—no cultivated detachment, no ironic stance, no disavowal of subjectivity, no sense of style as an arbitrary accoutrement one dons like this season’s new fashions. This large, well-documented retrospective underscores the single-mindedness that has sustained the intensity of Pousette-Dart’s work for fifty years, even as it has made him seem irrelevant for the latter part of that period, underscoring the fact that his paintings have never attracted the critical attention they deserve.

Early on, Pousette-Dart achieved minor recognition as the youngest Abstract Expressionist, although the enormous fame of other members overshadowed his accomplishments. In fact, his earliest works seen here do appear stiff and labored compared to paintings of the same period by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Adolf Gottlieb; they also come off a somewhat more self-consciously derivative of Picasso, late Cubism, Surrealism, and primitive art than do the works of the first-string expressionists. But Pousette-Dart’s mastery of painting techniques and refinement of imagery have advanced steadily over the years, long after most of the first generation died, and popular attention turned away from Abstract Expressionism.

Pousette-Dart has never wavered in his metaphysical view of art as an agency of spiritual insight and transcendence, and his struggle to wrest unity out of diversity has led him through a variety of modes, all amply represented in this show. In the ’40s, searching for a universal vocabulary of spiritual expression, he employed totemic forms borrowed from many cultures. In the ’50s he added saturated colors that evoke the mystical light inside Gothic cathedrals. In the ’60s he radically simplified his compositions, using dense, allover fields sometimes inflected by radiant floating circular shapes that seem as if they have been caught in the process of emerging from the inchoate field or decomposing into it. In these and the later, even larger-scale paintings of the ’70s and ’80s, such as Alizarin Time, River, 1988, the whole is achieved through the painstaking application of thousands of individual marks that recalls post-Impressionist pointillism.

Some of Pousette-Dart’s most impressive works of the past two decades are multi-panel paintings. In the complex triptych, Time is the Mind of Space, Space is the Body of Time, 1979–82, diamonds, triangles, and squares interact both within and across panels. Coexisting in a variety of sizes and degrees of integration or disintegration, they are the antitheses of an immutable geometry. The edges of the minimal images are not hard; instead, they tremble with the possibility of imminent transformation.

In the presence of Pousette-Dart’s paintings, the importance of discussions of style, form, or historical position pale. This is an art to look at and experience, not to wage polemical battles over. The best of the paintings are like the ocean in their power to shut out the rest of the world, quieting its noise. These paintings with heavy, lavalike impasto give off an impression of movement and corporeality, literally changing in appearance, depending upon one’s angle of vision.

Pousette-Dart is (perhaps blindly) devoted to his way of knowing and painting, yet his constant intensity—his sustained faith in the transcendent power of his medium and the continued relevance of painterly painting—is a reminder that more than one kind of artmaking can flourish in a post-Modern climate. His work may yet return to the cutting edge as introspection and spirituality seem once again to have roles to play in contemporary art.

Jean Robertson