Larry Poons might be considered one of the top painters working today, and he knows it. Over his five-decade career he has painted seminal works that have been shown and owned by an illustrious list of prominent private and museum collections all over the world. Critics and historians have written about his work for decades, with pages upon pages chronicling his modes and methods.
With so much history behind him, and considering that the artist is reaching nearly 80 years old, one might anticipate a lull in his creative output. But Poons remains one of our greatest painters. Like Mario Andretti lives for speed, Poons craves after paint. An exhibition of his most recent work, organized in tandem by the Loretta Howard Gallery and Danese gallery, is chock-full of the best painting on view in New York. Can you tell I’m a fan?
Poons’s work is about color. It’s been about color since his history-making dot paintings of the ’60s. And it’s been about color since his vigorous throw paintings of the ’70s. In the ’80s and ’90s, as surface and texture became prominent in his work, color, while it may seem to have taken a back seat to the physicality of the painting, still remained constant. And in recent years we’ve seen a welcome return to the brush.
“The Flying Blue Cat,” “Tycho Brahe,” and “Barreling” have expansive landscaped horizons and color staccatoed across the canvas in an all-over rhythm. They and the others in the show allude to a narrative but offer no wholly recognizable forms. Maelstroms of line and color tell a story more complicated than your typical “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” But Poons isn’t a history painter by any means. “Spend some time with them,” he tells me. “It’s about the eye; it’s always been about the eye.”
In “She Turns,” I see a Dubuffet-like personage staring out through fields of color. And in “Giordano Burno,” named after the Italian philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer, I see the old ridge I used to hike when I was a kid growing up in Utah. When I tell Poons what I see, he fires back, saying, “Why? There is no point, it’s just paint.
“There is a piece of everything in everything, you know,” he adds. “A rock looks just like a tree and tree just like a rock. It all depends on how you see it. They are, we are, all made up of the same stuff. And in the end, it’s just paint.”
It takes me a minute, but then I get it. I take a step back from the frame and then focus on the surface. Each painting, every one, radiates a Dionysian surge of color against color, paint against paint. If my observations seem general it’s because Poons wants us to see rather than contextualize. He wants us to feel rather than interpret.
In pure painting terms, it’s the essence of these paintings that comes out and bowls you over. They originate from chromatic worlds of music and color, creating along the way a visual and emotional sensation ripe with gesture, raw energy, and improvisation.
In the catalogue for the exhibition, Robert Pincus-Witten writes of a “constant shift” in experiencing the paintings as they “oscillate back and forth from the local to the universal.”
When Poons talks about his paintings he sounds a hell of a lot like Cézanne. And actually, he’s starting to look like him, too, minus the beard. Anthea Callen, in her book The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique and the Making of Modernity, writes:
Cézanne described seeing nature as patches or stains of color, similar to the colored tachés Monet advised Lilla Cabot Perry to look for in the landscape […] ‘Pure retinal sensation’ was thought by the philosopher Hippolyte Taine to be the basis of naïve vision and apparently Cézanne subscribed to Taine’s idea of vision as per sensation, primitive in character, unaffected by interpretations based on memory and experience.
This is exactly how Poons describes his paintings. It’s a philosophy in freedom and approach. Poons’s taché technique informs the work just as Cézanne described it to Émile Bernard: “The effect is what constitutes a picture. It unifies the picture and concentrates it.” Like Cézanne, Poons’s artworks parallel rather than copy nature. Which is why they look “like everything and nothing,” Poons tells me. “They are all in the nature of the thing … of anything … of everything.”
Though he would argue about it, the recent paintings by Poons are paeans to Cézanne. Yet they stretch beyond subtlety — they are exuberant and impulsive, opulent and nuanced. Moreover, they tell us more about how really seeing, truly looking at painting, is a thing of the past. Poons carries the torch, heralds the song, then asks us to abandon all knowledge as we stand in rapture. Empty. What other contemporary artist demands this?
Larry Poons: New Paintings runs at Loretta Howard Gallery (525-531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 2.