A member of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, Richard Pousette-Dart was an innovator, a vegetarian who didn’t drink or smoke, and one of the few artists associated with this group not to have developed a signature style. In contrast to his more earthbound peers, Pousette-Dart pursued the spiritual without irony or doubt. One could say his impasto black-and-white paintings occupy the opposite end of the spectrum from Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, but the two are deeply connected: Pousette-Dart and Reinhardt embody two radically different views of the boundless and infinity, one optimistic and the other pessimistic.
For this and other reasons, it might be time to look at Pousette-Dart’s work again, and more closely. Altered States: The Etchings of Richard Pousette-Dart at Del Deo & Barzune (October 6 – December 16, 2016) is a good place to start, as it is the first exhibition to focus solely on a little known body of work by this major, still under-recognized artist.
In 1979, Pousette-Dart returned in earnest to printmaking after a hiatus of more than forty years. He had made his first etchings in the fall of 1937, when he was 21 years old, probably under the tutelage of his father, Nathaniel Pousette-Dart, a painter of some renown. When Pousette-Dart was 25, he completed “Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental” (1941-42), a mural-sized painting now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which influenced Jackson Pollock and others to work on a larger scale.
As this early painting’s title suggests, Pousette-Dart was interested in attuning himself to nature and its boundless presence. This meant turning away from the social and focusing on the inner self. Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up one of Transcendentalism’s goals as follows: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.” More than anything else, this belief in the importance of solitude is what separated Pousette-Dart from his peers. On a fundamental level, it didn’t matter that he made all-over paintings because he was serious about his engagement with the spiritual, which made materially biased critics who believed in paint-as-paint and macho camaraderie to conveniently overlook his accomplishment.
In contrast to other Abstract Expressionists, most notably Robert Motherwell, Pousette-Dart saw prints as a beginning, a surface to work on. He goes over them with acrylic, gouache, graphite, and ink. Although he made many etchings, he seldom bothered to edition them. In fact, none of the 25 prints included in this exhibition seem to have been editioned. Nearly all of them date from 1979-80, with one earlier etching, “Galaxies of Being,” from 1974. One reason for this sustained outburst of creativity was that the master printmaker, Sylvia Roth, had a printmaking studio near the artist’s home and studio in Suffern, New York.
I think the reason Pousette-Dart took to intaglio was because he liked the density he could attain by repeatedly incising and revising a plate through various processes. Once the print was pulled, it offered further opportunity to go over it with another, more liquid medium. “Light Sublime” is one of the masterpieces of this period, a sheet of paper covered with scratches and grooves that are denser in one area than another. When we think of all-over painting, particularly done by Pollock, we think of tumultuous gestures looping across the surface; they literally expand out toward the painting’s physical edges. Instead of carrying us out, Pousette-Dart pulls us in. His field of tiny flecks evokes the infinite — what we live in but literally cannot see, much less comprehend. Measuring 17 ¾ by 23 13/16 inches, “Light Sublime” might be much smaller than a typical poured Pollock painting, but it packs nearly as strong a visual impact.
One of the delights of Pousette-Dart’s etchings — I am particularly thinking of “Galaxies of Being,” “Light Sublime,” and “The Crystal Forest” (1979-80) — is how quickly one gets lost in the looking. The scale of these prints is hardly overwhelming, and the size of the marks in relation to the surface allows for what seem like infinite additions. And yet, in these three etchings, it is clear that Pousette-Dart liked to see how far he could push a compositional possibility, how much density he could achieve without making the work airless.
Pousette-Dart’s interest in the figure-ground relationship, its emergence and submergence, leads him to probe those moments between appearance and disappearance. In some works, an orb or outlined form seems to be on the verge of vanishing. At what point does a circle appear in “Galaxies of Being,” or was it a figment of my imagination? Here again, one might recall Reinhardt’s black paintings and that sudden flash of red that is gone almost before you see it; that is something that can happen while looking at these dense, black surfaces.
In four etchings, all measuring 8 by 10 inches, Pousette-Dart incised an oval inside a welter of abstract marks. He then made further additions to three of them. In “Blue Sonata” (1980), he filled the oval with blue acrylic paint strokes, which he also used for a blue border around it, evoking carpets and the decorative tradition. In this and other works in which color is added, one senses the artist’s joyousness. It is a bliss that has to do with making, rather than selling. Remember, he didn’t edition his work. Such acts seemed superfluous to him. This is another reason why he should be important to many young artists.
Altered States: The Etchings of Richard Pousette-Dart continues at Del Deo & Barzune (15 West 26th Street, Midtown South, Manhattan) through December 16.