A Painter in His 80s, but Still in His Prime

Installation view, "Larry Poons: New Paintings" at Danese/Corey (all images via
Installation view, “Larry Poons: New Paintings” at Danese/Corey (all images via

The borders drawn so neatly between cultural periods are regularly trespassed by artists who continue to work well beyond the eras that mark their defining achievements. Claude Monet was still painting Impressionist canvases in 1925, while Marcel Duchamp was working on his rotary pieces. Such overlaps surprise us because older artists like Monet often settle into the background in their extended years, sharing no more than the calendar with their younger contemporaries. But there are exceptions.

Larry Poons’s recent paintings at Danese/Corey not only show him producing significant work as he approaches his eighties, but, unlike others of his age, Poons has refused to step gracefully behind his younger colleagues. He continues to work vigorously, and he has instinctively kept pace with painters years behind himself.

This isn’t to suggest that Poons has made a special effort to keep abreast of artistic fashion; rather, he’s simply failed to follow a conventional career arc with a centrally located zenith. His work has been manically open-ended for decades. From the agitation of the elliptical spots that inaugurated his precocious beginnings in the early 1960s, to the torrents of impasto with which he sprayed his way through the 1980s and 1990s, followed by more experiments in texture and paint application — not all successful, but never diffident — Poons’s career has been something of a protracted high-wire act, dedicated to the pursuit of painting on its own terms.

Larry Poons, "Stolen Blues" (2013), acrylic on canvas, 64 5/8 x 54 1/8 in
Larry Poons, “Stolen Blues” (2013), acrylic on canvas, 64 5/8 x 54 1/8 in

There is a depth of understanding and clear evidence of a living interaction with painting’s history in this work — a hard-won quality that can only come from eye and hand working in tandem. Ranging from five or six feet high to a maximum of about nine feet wide, these paintings could be misconstrued as throwbacks to Abstract Expressionism. They display a robust spontaneity spread across what seems at first like the infamous Greenbergian surface. But, stepping inside each painting’s optimum viewing distance, which I found to be about six to eight feet away, one discovers a spatial depth that gives way to barely implied landscape and figurative elements lurking in the open mesh of color. From a surface built of acrylic strokes on raw canvas never thicker than an inch or so, shapes and forms tease their way through the dense field without separating their tenuous bond to the picture plane.

It is primarily the ease with which Poons negotiates between spatial illusion and surface tension that links him to younger painters. Like Amy Sillman and Julian Hatton, Poons displays a pronounced inventiveness that has flourished since abstract painters outgrew the strict parameters of residual Cubism and formal orthodoxy. His influences are not difficult to find, but neither are they easily reconciled to one another. A canvas like “Stolen Blues” revisits the work of painters so disparately scattered throughout the last century —late 1940s Pollock, 1970s De Kooning, the glassy color swirlings of Janet Fish’s still lifes — that merely recognizing them recalls Jorge Luis Borges’s suggestion that artists create their own unique precursors.

Larry Poon, "Book of Minutes" (2013), acrylic on canvas, 64 x 70 1/8 in
Larry Poons, “Book of Minutes” (2013), acrylic on canvas, 64 x 70 1/8 in

The elusiveness of these traces and echoes testifies to their accidental and unconscious summoning. Other names — Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Pierre Bonnard, even Monet himself — come to mind with no hint of mimicry. There’s no self-consciously postmodern strategy at work here; if anything, the enthusiasm of these canvases strikes one as an expression of post-ideological abandon. In “Book of Minutes,” there are pale blues and grays strewn in the upper region implying the sky flashing through a thicket of indistinct painterly aggregate. It is genuinely exhilarating to witness a painter who lived and worked at a time when the transgression of depth in the picture field was taboo, finally set free to discover, perhaps rediscover, the vitality that abstract painting can still engender.

It will probably take years of analysis for critics and historians to catch up with Poons’s achievement. Moving targets are the most difficult to pin down.

Larry Poons: New Paintings continues at Danese/Corey (511 West 22nd Street, Chelsea) through February 8.

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