“Great art,” writes Richard Pousette-Dart, “leaves half the creation to the onlooker.” That proactive role is available to any visitor who stands before the consciousness-expanding paintings featured in Pace Gallery’s superb Richard Pousette-Dart: The Centennial.
This retrospective of 14 paintings coincides with the recently completed conservation and reinstallation of Pousette-Dart’s triptych, Presence, Healing Circles (1973) at North Central Bronx Hospital, and Altered States, an exhibition of Pousette-Dart’s etchings opening this coming week at Del Deo & Barzune Gallery in Chelsea.
Each work on view at Pace demands double duty of the visitor. At first, these large-scale, all-over paintings rife with stunning pictographic detail seem intended to enrapture or captivate. But ravishment is only part of the equation. The viewer inevitably homes in on the content like a cryptologist, imaginatively decoding Pousette-Dart’s gnomic figurations, pulsating color patterns, and heavily painted, three-dimensional textures. It is the kind of work you can enjoy doing for hours.
Despite their distinctiveness, each conveys anonymity in tandem with their virtuosity, qualities accentuated by the pictures’ heft and symbolism. In this respect they are akin to cave paintings or medieval mosaics. Their mysteries beg the question, what motivated Richard Pousette-Dart to produce works as enigmatic and insular, in terms of imagery, as they are luminescent and forthright in their effects?
That mixture of concealment and presence lurks in Pousette-Dart’s biography, too. He was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and grew up in upstate New York. His surname was inherited from his parents’ French and Swedish family names. His mother, Flora, was a musician and poet, and his father, Nathaniel, was an artist, art scholar, and astute collector. Unsurprisingly, in his youth, Pousette-Dart was encouraged to make art and began painting by the age of eight.
He fueled his early fascination with primordial imagery and three-dimensionality by studying Oceanic and Native American art. From these traditions, he evolved his Modernist visual vocabulary, suggesting mythological systems and alphabets from lost civilizations, or, more naturalistically, the anatomies of fish and birds, and hieratic silhouettes of human and animal heads.
After dropping out of Bard College in 1936, Pousette-Dart started out as a sculptor working in stone and brass, influenced by the Art Deco statues of Paul Manship as well as the avant-gardism of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brezka, who at the beginning of the 20th century made the primitive and totemic style new.
And Gaudier-Brzeska’s account of his aesthetic applies just as well to Pousette-Dart’s heavily worked abstract paintings, in which “line is a purely imaginary thing, entering the design only to contain the planes of the mass, receiving light and creating shadow.”
Monasticism in the name of art seems to have been Pousette-Dart’s calling. During World War II, risking arrest, he declared himself a war resister, and, in a socially boisterous artistic milieu inspired by Existentialism, jazz, and booze, Pousette-Dart preferred introversion, secular spiritualism, and depth psychology, much of it cultivated through his readings of texts by such like-minded figures as the mathematician P.D. Ouspenskii and the artist John Graham.
Despite an avowed separateness from the postwar New York zeitgeist, Pousette-Dart hit pay dirt in that very world at a young age. Throughout the 1940s, his work enjoyed solo shows from kingmakers like Peggy Guggenheim, Marian Willard Johnson, and Betty Parsons, and Pousette-Dart appeared in the iconic 1951 Life magazine photo portrait, “The Irascibles,” featuring the first generation of New York Abstract Expressionists.
To paraphrase a mystic credo – Pousette-Dart was in that New York art world but not of it. In fact, by the time of the Life photo in 1951, he had largely left New York City behind and resettled upstate to Sloatsburg and, later, near Suffern, working in relative seclusion until his death in 1992.
An explicit career trajectory emerges from the paintings hanging at Pace Gallery. The show demonstrates how Pousette-Dart’s abstractions broke with the expressive energies of 1940s Action Painting in favor of the suppler, quieter approach into which he had settled by the 1950s. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he brought this poignant and hushed lyricism to bear on a series of vibrantly contemplative paintings, many densely packed with compressed, circular figurations reminiscent of indigenous Australian dot paintings. In his black-and-white compositions and lustrous monochromatic works, light seems to emanate directly beneath the pictures’ granular surfaces.
The exhibition features Pousette-Dart’s early experiments in three-dimensionality and contrasting textures. Color Field-influenced paintings of the 1940s and 50s such as “Gold Elegy” (1949) deploy flecked and encrusted brushwork. It situates jewel-like spatters of paint alongside dramatic hazes of color. The ethereal and the earthbound are so harmonized that it is impossible to gauge where one leaves off and the other begins.
The paintings employ various abstract idioms to challenge preconceived polarities of space and time, dream visions and waking life, the real and the spectral. “Yellow Amorphous” (1950) is similarly fixed and buoyant, concrete and otherworldly. Its wide picture plane sweeps tangible figures into billowing, curvaceous fields of yellow brushstrokes, floating like cirrus clouds or metamorphic fish over a marbled blue and white under-painting, and challenging the distinction between liquid and solid states. Often in Pousette-Dart’s work, gravity and levity, bulkiness and softness are so equivalently palpable that the viewer feels both drawn into and levitated by their content.
As a result, falling into contemplative states before each of the paintings in this show is effortless and immersive. A visitor might get his or her bearings in one painting only to have those expectations undone by the alternative universe mapped out in the next.
The chalky, rhythmic cool of “Blue Image” (1950) and the sacramental aura of the white and gold “Presence” (1956) are ballasted by geometrics and grids, within which the paintings’ pictographic particulars flicker and blaze.
Pousette-Dart’s “Gothic 2,” (1950-51), a groundbreaking work not included in the exhibition, illustrates how Pousette-Dart refined this vision to conflate dreamscapes and familiar structures. Triangular, semicircular, and wedge-shaped figures in white, apparently interrelated, vie for the viewer’s imaginative decoding over a substructure of black horizontal and vertical bars and innumerable arcs. Every square inch of the painting’s neatly balanced symbolic network contains within it yet another subset of hieroglyphic patterns.
Ultimately, basic concepts of time are challenged through close encounters with Pousette-Dart’s paintings. The infinitesimal knot-work, teeming squibs, and countless dots and spirals populating the jam-packed masterpiece “Hieroglyph of Light” (1966-67) call to mind hypnotic plait-like designs, interlacing arabesques, and girih tiles of Islamic art or the Gaelic script and florid miniatures of the Christian The Book of Kells. Like those ancient examples, Pousette-Dart’s painting evokes the ungraspable concept of the eternal through the painstakingly patient, accumulative methods of visual art – limited means crafted to look infinite.
“The Soft Edges of Time” (1976-82) further exemplifies Pousette-Dart’s aim to communicate infinitude. He does this through seemingly limitless, minuscule configurations arranged into what can best be described as an expansive compression. Consequently, the painting reads like a fable that dramatizes competing notions of time. We conceive of time as a measurable quantity, or chronology, and yet, as writers from Saint Teresa of Ávila to Marcel Proust have testified, we often know time as limitless moments of ecstasy.
Such spatially oriented accounts of time are made visible in “The Soft Edges of Time.” Beguiling, inexhaustible dot-like squibs of paint orbit around larger, primary-colored circular forms. Some of these concentric systems are outlined and arranged into ever-whiter crosswise horizontal and vertical rows: rows that are semi-rounded, as the picture’s title implies, rather than angular, and that feel symbolic of time’s presumed — but perhaps fictive — linearity.
The graphic linearity of rows in “The Soft Edges of Time” parallels our conventional notions of time as a neat sequence of past, present and future. But it seems imposed on the composition by Pousette-Dart in order to direct or control the countless orbs swarming across the canvas, much like discrete moments of the past teeming willy-nilly in our minds. As those meticulously painted tiny globes pulsate the painting with an iridescent and compacted energy, virtually rupturing the picture plane, ecstatic knowledge seems close at hand.
Perhaps Pousette-Dart is hinting that infinity, if it is comprehensible at all, reveals itself through such a collaboration between art maker and onlooker, in which meticulous and finite strategies provide the artist with glimpses of eternity. But only by looking deeply into that art, do we complete its revelations by our belief in them.
Richard Pousette-Dart: The Centennial continues at Pace Gallery (32 East 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 18.