New York

View of “Larry Poons,” 2019. From left: For “Glenda”, 2019; Things Minus People (Kubrick), 2018.

View of “Larry Poons,” 2019. From left: For “Glenda”, 2019; Things Minus People (Kubrick), 2018.

Larry Poons

Two very different sides of Larry Poons appear in his most recent exhibition. On the one hand are a dozen paintings—made between 2014 and 2019 and built out of masses of small, flickering gestures—that in their meditative lyricism hearken back to Impressionist landscapes. On the other are thirteen canvases, or “Particle Paintings,” dating from 1996 to 2002, that Poons made using a technique that involved laying down mostly linear relief elements onto the work’s surface before applying paint. Via this approach, “drawing” became a material fact, to which Poons could react with color, presumably in a spontaneous and improvisational manner, as implied by the exhibition’s title, borrowed from Allen Ginsberg: “First Thought, Best Thought.”

Despite the dramatic shifts in Poons’s methods, from his grid-based, hard-edge dot and lozenge paintings of the 1960s (still what he’s best known for), through the thrown-paint works of the 1970s and 1980s, at least this much seemed consistent: Poons is strictly an abstractionist. Yet that changed with the “Particle Paintings”: Although still primarily nonobjective, they also incorporate letters, numerals, arrows, musical notation, and diagrammatic forms rendered in perspective—things unimaginable in his earlier work. And, unlike the heady mixtures of hue in the splattered and drippy acrylic of the thrown paintings, color here is mostly applied in big blocks, often enriched by rough dotting, and quite opaque. There’s something cartoonlike about what Poons does in this series, not entirely unlike what the late Elizabeth Murray had been doing since the ’80s—but putting his feverish intensity in place of her playfulness.

Poons’s dots, pours, and reliefs could easily be mistaken for works done by three different artists. And now we meet a fourth. In fact, each of his earlier styles might have been conceived as a way of avoiding becoming exactly the sort of painter he is currently; namely, someone whose art is founded on the hand and brush, on the minute sensitivity of touch—a sensitivity that also extends to his interactions with color. What’s surprising is that such refinement can be carried out on such a grand scale; the largest pieces, Things Minus People (Kubrick), 2018, and For “Glenda”, 2019, are more than five feet high and seventeen feet wide (and a third, Never Happened, 2019, is only about a foot shorter, lengthwise). The works’ extreme horizontality makes it hard not to think of Monet’s late “Water Lilies”— their amorphousness and their deliquescence of form are very similar—and Poons’s art does not suffer from the comparison. And yet, far from the “floating, passive, reflecting essence,” per Meyer Schapiro, that distinguished the Frenchman’s pondscapes, Poons’s paintings retain something of the restless energy that has always characterized his oeuvre.

More surprising is the realization that this horizontality is just what Poons’s current work has in common with what he was doing twenty years ago. True, among the earlier pieces here, none has more than the three-to-one ratio of Things Minus People (Kubrick) and For “Glenda”, but five of them take on at least the wide-screen cinema proportions of 2.39: 1. These are environmental paintings. That the nature of the environment seems urban in the earlier images, with their assertive, wall-like textures—while open and almost pastoral in the more recent ones—may be less important than the fact that Poons sees painting as a means of creating a habitable world, full of events.