New York

View of “Joanna Pousette-Dart,” 2020. From left: 2 Part Variation #3 (After Pierrot), 2015; 3 Part Variation #6, 2013; 3 Part Variation #12, 2017.

View of “Joanna Pousette-Dart,” 2020. From left: 2 Part Variation #3 (After Pierrot), 2015; 3 Part Variation #6, 2013; 3 Part Variation #12, 2017.

Joanna Pousette-Dart

“Strong experience of nature . . . is the necessary basis for all conception of art,” Paul Cézanne wrote in 1904. And in 1949 Clement Greenberg surmised that “Western painting has continued somehow to be naturalistic despite all appearances to the contrary.” The critic also went on to say that abstraction began “when Braque and Picasso stopped trying to imitate the normal appearance of a wineglass and tried instead to approximate, by analogy, the way nature opposed verticals in general to horizontals in general.” Similarly, Joanna Pousette-Dart’s paintings in her exhibition at Lisson Gallery “approximate[d] by analogy,” the “vast flat expanse”—to use the artist’s phrasing—of the curved Galisteo Basin Preserve in New Mexico, as well as the mountainous terrain that surrounds it. (The artist lived in the area during the 1980s, and her time there remains an ongoing source of inspiration for her work.) Pousette-Dart’s paintings were rooted in the age-old desire to master nature and use its resources for the benefit of humankind. The conversion of untamed wilderness into refined art seems to me an underlying ambition of abstraction, for which Cézanne is the precursor—yet Pousette-Dart’s attempts at this sort of alchemy here yielded mixed results.

According to Greenberg, abstraction is an “advanced art” that can afford the viewer “exhilaration and satisfaction.” But Pousette-Dart’s nonobjective take on the Galisteo Basin falls emotionally and conceptually flat, too—at least from an art-historical perspective. Shaped canvases were exhibited at Berlin’s Galerie Der Sturm in 1922 and in the Brooklyn Museum’s 1926–27 “International Exhibition of Modern Art.” They continued to be made by many artists throughout the 1950s, perhaps most notably by Jasper Johns. Pousette-Dart’s shaped paintings, however intriguing, are just chips off a decaying old block. What saves her works from complete decadence is not so much their uncanny resemblance to Northwest Coast Native American art (she can mimic its graphic sophistication and numinous, curvilinear beauty with great finesse), but their curious kinship with the Galisteo Basin Pueblo ruins. Each of these buildings has anywhere from two to five floors, which were often long and narrow—much like the forms that appear in her paintings’ stacked compositions: 2 Part Variation #3 (After Pierrot), 2015, looks like one canoe laid on top of another and is rendered in an assortment of blues, a lemony yellow, and several shades of peach; 3 Part Variation #6, 2013, is a horizontal layering of three fingerlike wedges in a more subdued palette of deep purple, dark green, burnt umber, a dirty persimmon, and several kinds of cobalt. 

However, the four modestly sized drawings on rice paper that make up the China Black Ink Suite, 2016, felt more vital, expressive, and impulsive. They are charged with concentrated power and struck me as the freshest works in the exhibition. Untitled (Square Study #3, #5, and #10), all 2018, have a similar quality, but strangely their tastefully contrasting orangey browns and blues made them all too polite, resolved. The spontaneity of the drawings outclassed the elegance of the paintings, at least to my hungry eyes. The streamlined Variation works, suave versions of “eccentric abstraction,” were soothing and pleasurable—but not necessarily better for it.