Richard Pousette-Dart

The painter Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-92) once said, in all sincerity, “I am an artist of the concealed power of the spirit, not of the brute physical form.” Pousette-Dart was one of those urban American artists—plentiful among the generation maturing aesthetically at the beginning of what we once called the Atomic Age—who sought out the cosmological as a refuge from material and industrial might. He attended Bard College in 1936, but quickly decided to quit school and become an artist. Although he first apprenticed himself to the conservatively modern figurative sculptor Paul Manship, he was eventually considered one of the Abstract Expressionists. He appears—a handsome young man looking a little like Richard Widmark mitigated by Elisha Cook, Jr.—in Nina Leen’s famous 1951 photograph, “Irascibles,” the tag given the core group who protested the slighting of abstract art by the Metropolitan Museum. That same year, however, Pousette-Dart left New York City for Rockland County. This move to a place so close to yet so far from the orthodox AbEx angst percolating in lower Manhattan underscored an essential difference from his School of New York colleagues: he was a spiritual optimist; they were agnostic pessimists.

At this point, the Met is one of the few museums one could call a fan of abstract painting, and its smallish Pousette-Dart retrospective (thirty-three works, arranged chronologically) is the artist’s first in New York since the Whitney’s show in 1974. (In 1986, the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art staged a relatively large survey, but it didn’t travel.) The show opens with some of Pousette-Dart late-’30s ink drawings. Here, Pousette-Dart literally spells out his yearning for a metaphysical oneness, actually making notes about it on the work. These pieces depict chunky, primitive-looking sculptural figures in bold outline, and are visually heavy-handed, as is a 1939 Braque-like painting titled East River. But in fairness a lot of modern art from that time seems clumsy now; artists were trying very hard to figure out whether to comment on a world headed for war or stay apolitical, whether there was anything vital left in figurative art or abstraction was the way to go. In short, they worried whether—with the Japanese invading China and the Nazis Poland—nonobjective painting amounted to fiddling while Rome burned. In Symphony #1, The Transcendental, 1941–42, Pousette-Dart cast his lot with abstraction. It’s a stunning painting: good-looking, edgy (the paint is overworked to the point of becoming sculptural relief), and radical—far ahead, for instance, of the more conventionally, figuratively expressionist Jackson Pollock paintings, such as The Moon Woman, completed in the same year.

After this painting, Pousette-Dart got both better and worse. He got better in that his paintings became more confidently consistent and physically ambitious. But he also either simply took a wrong stylistic turn someplace (opting for emphatic geometric shapes ordered on grids, instead of letting the act of painting dictate more of the composition, à la de Kooning), or got bogged down in what became a trademark mystical uplift (using shapes—circles and diamonds with concave edges—that seem like they came from a clip-art catalogue for mystics).

Path of the Hero, 1950, is the first painting in Pousette-Dart’s signature style, which is to say fully in the feeling of Symphony #I, only less cluttered. Light shines from this particular painting. It’s also a relatively early use of acrylic by an American artist. (The medium was first used by the Mexican muralists in the ’30s.) Shadow of the Unknown Bird, 1955–58, sums up Pousette-Dart’s preferences in color, shape, and paint application. It displays a full palette, Impressionist attack, primal shapes, and ambitious scale. If only, I keep thinking, the title didn’t sound so much like an old Steve Allen joke. In the early ’60s, Pousette-Dart’s work slackens. He seems to start to believe that spiritual sincerity will automatically solve pictorial problems such as how to get both strong shapes and painterliness to hang together in an abstract painting.

That's what can happen when you’re that mawkishly open about the “spiritual” aspect of your art. There’s a five-minute video, made a few years before the artist’s death, running constantly in one of the later galleries of the exhibition. In it, Pousette-Dart states, in a conversationally modest tone, his basic (and absolutely unfalsifiable) artistic beliefs, which include (I paraphrase): a painting grows and develops of its own accord; every painting is a new experience; down deep, an artist works on a single painting for an entire lifetime. Concerning teaching, he says: everyone is potentially a genius; a teacher only helps people to “flower”; and “creative people” are the real “heroes” of society. Who could disagree? On the other hand, what is there to hang your hat on here? The only non-touchy-feely utterance in the video is his statement that children and insane people don’t make real art.

What I’ve written, I realize, makes Pousette-Dart seem like much less a painter than he actually is, especially compared to others roughly of his generation. He’s easily better than, say, Kyle Morris, Herman Cherry, or Michael Goldberg. But he’s not as good as James Brooks or Joan Mitchell. And it’s interesting to try to figure out why. I think it’s because when an artist whose work is self-proclaimedly “spiritual” misses the mark, even narrowly, there isn’t much left to cling to. You’re either awestruck and transported, or you’re not. Whereas when a more secular, materialist painter wrestles with space and color and paint application and comes up short, you can at least latch onto some vigorous carpentry—even if it leaves splinters in your hands.

Peter Plagens is an art critic for Newsweek and a painter.