New York

Larry Poons, Jessica’s Hartford, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 120".

Larry Poons, Jessica’s Hartford, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 120".

Larry Poons

Larry Poons, Jessica’s Hartford, 1965, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 120".

The strangest item in this small exhibition of early work by Larry Poons was a brief, grainy audio recording of a short-lived rock ’n’ roll group called the Druds. Formed by Andy Warhol in 1963, the Druds released no records and never once performed live, yet they are remembered today for a lineup that is almost comically auspicious: Walter De Maria on drums, La Monte Young on saxophone, Poons on guitar, and Jasper Johns, Patty Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, and Warhol himself singing. A star-studded cast, indeed, but even illustriousness can fall flat. The track, “No More Apologies,” is a case study in toe-curling dissonance, with Oldenburg’s unhinged caterwauling clashing unbearably with Johns’s basso-profundo backing vocals and Poons’s rough, clanging guitar. It’s bad. But still, it sure sounds like they were having fun.

And that quality of fun provides an illuminating if not instructive backdrop to the five paintings made between 1957 and 1959 that were also presented in the show’s first room. An astringent group of hard-edge and geometric abstractions, these works evoke, above all, the image of a bow-tied nebbish methodically plotting from the grid: Take, for example, McAree, ca. 1958, with its misaligned yellow and red lines defining a circle and square. Yet, as the Druds recording reminds us, these paintings were birthed not from a dry pursuit of Greenbergian opticality, but rather from a wild, booze-soaked bohemia. A favorite is the hard-edge Florentine, ca. 1958, with swaths of bright orange and forest green fitted together at sharp angles.

Things really got going in next room, where the gallery presented two of Poons’s later dot paintings—stunning, large expanses of unmodulated color that sport scintillating allover patterns of small ellipses and spots. One, Imperfect Memento: To Ellen H. Johnson, 1965, is backed by bright orange and is some fifteen feet wide; the other, Jessica’s Hartford, also 1965, features a field of luminescent lime green behind spots of orange, lavender, sky blue, and mint green. Many of the dots are the chromatic opposite of the ground, and as the eye twitches while sustaining its gaze, a flurry of tiny afterimages appear and fade away; one encounters real difficulty discerning which dots are real and which are an optical effect. This retinal bedazzlement was very much of the moment: This was the mid-1960s, the dawn of Op art, and Poons’s canvases were considered a highlight of the United States’ first major exhibition of such work, “The Responsive Eye” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which took place the year these two paintings were made.

But the two works’ significance may derive less from the retinal effects they induce than from the way in which they obliquely allude to structure. The placement of the dots is irregular yet oddly systematic. It’s as if transparent sheets of plastic, each with dots arranged in grids of different sizes, were laid one atop another—sometimes the dots align, sometimes they’re out of sync. What we see—Poons’s painting—appears as only one small section of this much larger patterned plane. That is, there seems to be a logic behind the pattern, but that logic remains elusive; we try to figure it out but can’t. (Six studies on graph paper don’t particularly help.)

This is, I think, an important aesthetic effect, and one that should be taken seriously. For that sense—that vague, paranoid feeling of a pattern whose logic we can’t perceive—characterizes our experiences of many things today. It was, after all, central to Fredric Jameson’s theorization of postmodernism. In his seminal text, Jameson describes a world whose decentralized, networked systems of economic and social institutions are so complex, so unwieldy, that they exceed the limits of human comprehension. He proposes that digital technology—which, unlike, say, a smokestack, cannot be easily figured or depicted—offers a “privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp.” Not so long before Jameson articulated these ideas, Poons seems to have arrived at a representational shorthand of his own, and his paintings continue to resonate as circumscribed sections of a much larger whole.

Lloyd Wise