New York

Richard Pousette-Dart, Angel Forms, 1952–53, oil on linen, 44 x 62 1/2"

Richard Pousette-Dart, Angel Forms, 1952–53, oil on linen, 44 x 62 1/2"

Richard Pousette-Dart

Richard Pousette-Dart, Angel Forms, 1952–53, oil on linen, 44 x 62 1/2"

Richard Pousette-Dart was there right at the beginning. Though he is known for his paintings from the 1980s, which glow with pointillist orbs and spiritual awakenings, this exhibition, organized by Christopher Wool, of paintings and sculptures made in Pousette-Dart’s East River studio during the ’40s and early ’50s, reminds us that he was the youngest of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. Some of these paintings have never been shown publicly, and others have not been shown since their initial exhibition at Betty Parsons’s gallery in the ’40s. The opening of this crypt thus exposes the work of a young artist from a very different era to a contemporary marketplace in which, as evidenced by the popularity of the Museum of Modern Art’s recent de Kooning and Abstract Expressionist shows, a once difficult and controversial movement has been repositioned and domesticated by the passage of time.

The exhibition’s timeline is surprising, in a way, because although these paintings date from the beginning of the AbEx movement, they seem somehow retardataire, as if they had been made later. The paintings’ subjects bear the hallmarks of the Mythmaker movement, whose Jungian references and inkblot stylizations have become templates for the art that is now standard issue in analysts’ waiting rooms. The worked surfaces are both raw and overcooked, incorporating groundbreaking materials (for instance, industrial metallic paints and sand), yet mannered, open to the pull of decoration, which marks his later abstractions—intaglios of eternity, or of kitsch.

Through works dominated by line rather than volume, Pousette-Dart brings a filigree quality to Abstract Expressionism. This line reaches back to Surrealism through Matta, Klee, and Giacometti, yet it also has the designerish, reproducible qualities that characterize line when it wants to be attractive and modernist at the same time. With this adaptation, the paintings anticipate the knockoffs that will come later and prefigure their own absorption into mass culture as high-end design in Alvin Lustig’s New Directions book jackets, Eames fabrics, or film credits by Saul Bass.

But first is first, and this generation of American abstract artists had no sense of cliché. They were terribly sincere about their goofy subject matter. Using motifs borrowed from American Indian, African, Oceanic, and South American artworks as a shortcut to spirituality, they strove to counter the alienation and conformity of modern culture. Critics have condemned the Mythmakers’ expedient blending of influences from distinct cultural traditions and the political use made of Abstract Expressionist work to relocate the center of post–World War II culture from Europe to the US, yet such writing often seems indifferent to the art in question, which appears standardized, a placeholder for socioanthropological notions. The difficult question of the survival of individual subjectivity, of eccentricity or difference under industrialized capitalism, a question that such criticism tends to obviate, is one addressed by the divergent legacies of Pousette-Dart and Pollock.

Pollock’s imagination was dangerously off-kilter—sublime. His She Wolf, 1943, looks like a cow—ridiculous and brilliant, historic and hysterical. Pollock could have no school, no students. The very nature of his work precludes followers, aside from someone like Allan Kaprow, who glommed on to aspects of Pollock’s process and devised Happenings. Pousette-Dart didn’t really invent; nevertheless, he was a key figure in the genealogy of a movement based on originality and risk. Rather than establishing the canvas as an indeterminate space, a place to act, he created representations of sincerity, perhaps inadvertently conjuring a negativity that anticipates a good deal of contemporary painting. Pousette-Dart became an influential teacher, and Wool, whose own paintings complicate assumptions about authenticity and context, was among his students. Wool’s retrospective assembly of these East River studio works suggests that the oddness of their timeline begins, very early, to raise questions about simulation and originality in avant-garde painting that would be fully articulated in decades to come.

—­David Rimanelli