New York

Larry Poons

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Once among the stars of “postpainterly abstraction,” Larry Poons has been going his own unpredictable way, pictorially speaking, for some time now. Not that he cultivates the signifiers of solitary genius; his new paintings suggest a studio, like the one in Courbet’s “real allegory,” so packed with the figures of his imagination that he can barely stop to notice his isolation. Which is fine for him, but it does make it rather difficult for us to follow along. Perhaps that’s why his last show here, in 1995—extraordinary paintings that in retrospect seem like a culmination of Poons’ last twenty-five years of work—came and went virtually unnoticed. That’s a shame, and makes it harder to appreciate just what leap Poons has made with this new work, “The Texas Canyon Pictures,” 1996, four canvases and thirty-six works on paper.

The new paintings retain the generous scale and impressive physicality that have marked his work for some time, but Poons no longer paints them by throwing and pouring as he has since the early ’70s. He has returned to that traditional instrument, the brush—though hardly to conventional effect. By picking up a tool he long ago abandoned, Poons has restored a certain willfully primitive quality to his work. Indeed, with their tumbling forms and gravity-defying space, these collisions of color and texture sometimes recall such faux-naifs as George McNeil or Karel Appel, though in an abstract mode. That awkwardness must have been part of what Poons was looking for when he first adopted the rather brutal gesture of throwing paint, but after twenty-five years of practice a definite refinement had developed even there. No more. By laying the paint on less thickly than he used to, Poons has given greater prominence to the linear strips and textured areas of foam rubber he uses as a kind of underlying drawing, which formerly acted as baffles to the dripping of his thrown paint. As a result, these paintings are actually more relieflike than the thicker ones that preceded them. Nor do they avail themselves of the optical luminosity, reminiscent of Monet or Bonnard, that aerated the ponderous materialism of the earlier work. Instead, Poons’ formally even, allover meld of disparate colors has fractured into jagged juxtapositions of big solid or patterned areas that sometimes follow, sometimes cut across the underlying linear armature. He seems to harbor a particular affection for the fruity, artificial, vaguely tropical atmosphere exuded by certain poems of Wallace Stevens, whom Poons has cited as his favorite poet. But in contrast to Stevens’ fluency, Poons’ colors have been bluntly, even awkwardly, applied. Indeed, the cement- or stucco-like appearance of the rather dead hues covering chunky textures recalls the way an artist like Jessica Stockholder uses paint as an anonymous covering for disparate objects, and Poons’ rather frantic jumbling of separate incidents, almost successfully challenging any unifying gaze, recalls her work as well. In fact, the renewed hunger for complexity in these pictures, as Poons calls them, suggests a young artist’s urge to take on the whole world at once rather than a master’s undistracted concentration on a handful of choice concerns.

Nearing sixty, this onetime enfant terrible is clearly not ready to mellow. Poons’ new paintings are as risky as they are ambitious. That they sometimes fall apart—notably in From Life’s Other Side, which cannot contain the excitement of having passed from abstraction to pictograms, musical notation, and some not quite legible words—seems beside the point. The energy sustained by these paintings is enviable in an artist of any age, but their offhandedly decorative ugliness is strange enough to have taken years to realize.

Barry Schwabsky