New York

Larry Poons

Salander-O’Reilly Galleries

For many, the name Larry Poons will never signify anything but his classic dot paintings of the early ’60s. For a smaller, more dedicated band, Poons is equally the maker of the rather mad agglomerations of paint and heterogeneous matter that occupied him in the ’80s and ’90s when he was operating somewhere below art-world radar (and perhaps somewhat unwisely leading the informe bandwagon). Members of either group are probably surprised by Poons’s extraordinary new paintings, dominated as they are by what has always been a recessive aspect of both strains of his art, namely, draftsmanship.

Poons early on declared his ambition “to really do an overloaded painting. Not just a little overloaded, really overloaded.” He began using his canvas as a target for thrown paint, in the name of what Frank Stella, in his catalogue essay for this show, rightly calls an “aggressive and, at its best, exalted materiality.” Undergirding the works’ vast quantities of pigment were foam-rubber barriers that Poons built to arrest the flow of paint. These strips most often became buried in the depths of the surface. But in the new works the rather nasty-looking foam rubber emerges as an element in its own right—sometimes in the form of platelike planar shapes, sometimes as patterns of little nubs, but most noticeably as freely linear elements. On the other hand, Poons is now using paint more sparingly than he has in decades. So while there is still a relief element to his paintings, it is no longer at the service of the physicality of a color-substance but functions instead as a kind of assertive “drawn” scaffolding.

While these canvases, at least in their use of materials, could be seen as restrained in comparison with Poons’s work of the recent past, their operatic extravagance has only increased on other levels. His paintings have always been mostly reflexive, but these swarm with allusions both to the real world (I can’t prove it, but I’d swear Kid in Pink, 2001, shows the inside of a coffee shop) and to other art. This is a kind of overloading Poons hasn’t tried before. In fact, he now seems engaged in a kind of Bloomian agon with the masters of modernism. He’s dearly taking coloristic cues from Bonnard, and the ghosts of Kandinsky, Braque, and Miró haunt these paintings as well. But the overwhelming shadow here is the Picasso of the ’30s and ’40s. In fact, I suspect Poons spent a lot of time at the Guggenheim’s 1999 exhibition “Picasso and the War Years”: Works like Wilma Lee Cooper, 1999, Will My Soul Pass Through the South Land?, 1999, and Visitaurus, 2000, are full of small but significant echoes of paintings like Still Life with Palette, Candlestick, and Head of Minotaur, 1938, Night Fishing at Antibes, 1939, even Guernica, 1937 (of which the Guggenheim show included studies). These echoes bring out a kind of jubilatory anguish that I’ve never noticed in Poons’s work before. Like Picasso, Poons quotes the past in ways that always feel equally loving and hostile. And that explosive ambivalence gives emotional meaning to the incredible centrifugal force that animates these paintings—their fiercely scattered effect.

Barry Schwabsky