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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Larry Poons, Loose Change, 1977. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 43 1/2 inches. Courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery.
Entering Loretta Howard just now is like walking into the middle of Niagara Falls, or being confronted by the descending lava of a volcano—all as frozen for eternity by a modernist photographer like Brassaï, whose studies of Picasso’s sculpture from the 1930s and 40s currently grace the Picasso sculpture show at MoMA.

What one is seeing at Loretta Howard, however, is a more modern vision that hovers between painting and sculpture and was created by newer methods than those of Brassaï and Picasso. The show is “Larry Poons: Choral Fantasy” and it features ten mostly large and all equally powerful acrylics on canvas made between 1975 and 1982 (through February 13).

Thus these paintings come from a period when – together with his Islamorada neighbor & bone-fishing buddy, Jules Olitski -- Poons was the driving force behind what, for lack of a better term, one might call the modernist enterprise.

But Poons had been big long before that. Born in 1937 in Japan to Yankee parents, he was raised on Long Island, and in high school his imagination was already fired by slides he was shown of work by Mondrian, Malevich & Kandinsky.

Originally, he dreamed of becoming a musician—and indeed, in the 1960s he would become part of a short-lived avant-garde band in which his guitar was accompanied by the drums of Walter de Maria, fabled maker of earthworks, and itself accompanying the song stylings of Patty Oldenburg, then wife of Claes.

By that time, Poons himself was already famous as a painter. His brightly-colored, hard-edged, dancing “coin-dot” paintings had become the ultimate in “op” art; they were featured as such in MoMA’s definitive op art show, “The Responsive Eye” (1965).

But he wasn’t satisfied with celebrity. A friend remarked that he could sell any painting he wanted, just because he was Poons, and this bugged him because he didn’t want to be a known and familiar quantity. It wasn’t challenging enough.

He began to create canvases in which his coin-dots became larger, softer and looser, and then evolved into darker, turbulent washes of color that covered the entire canvas. This turn away from a simpler, more accessible style puzzled a lot of people, but Poons was so excited by it that he named a key transitional canvas, “Night Journey.”

This title came from a passage in Arthur Koestler which describes how the artist lives on a trivial plane of daily existence, but must descend into a harrowing private Hades if he is to find fresh inspiration. “Night Journey” was featured in color in Time magazine in 1968, and acquired by Socialite Collector Carter Burden.

Still, it was not until around1971 that Poons developed what became a second, entirely individual style. As he later recalled it, Clement Greenberg was in his studio one day, and admired – instead of his finished pictures – the way that some paint had splashed off the canvas and onto an adjoining space (in his later years, the critic preferred to spend time in artists’ studios, offering insights such as this – and leaving the task of reviewing the resulting exhibitions to younger critics).

After pondering this insight, Poons began to set his canvases upright, and concentrate on the splash itself, pouring the paint so that it coursed down the entire canvas and creating this variegated panoply of color not unlike frozen waterfalls or lava.

Sometime around 1980, he would also begin to build up his surfaces, initially just with gel and then later adding tufts of plastic cotton, wrinkled bits or folded tubes of paper and slices of foam rubber. However, the latest canvases in this exhibition – the four from the 1980s in the entry gallery – chronicle mostly the beginnings of this development, while the six in the central space – all from the 1970s -- are pure paint.

And what paint! The whole show is a colorist’s dream come true. The 1980s paintings, with their nubbled surfaces, are shades of purest gray, white or cream, while those from the 1970s explore a fuller range of color—clear and light in some cases, deep and mellow in others.

This critic’s favorite is “Loose Change” (1977), a tall narrow painting with blackish blue, light blue, mint green,pink, and rust-colored paint splashed and splattered as well as poured. Much empty canvas is left between its paint marks, creating the impression of a wind-blown rainstorm, or trees in the mist – most evocative of nature.

The entire show is delicate & poetic, so it is not surprising that the gallery's literature refers to the artist’s fondness for Emily Dickinson, while the “highbrow” nature of abstract painting in general renders another gallery reference -- to the artist’s fondness for Beethoven -- appropriate.

Still, the largest painting in the show, the majestic “Spanish Dancer” (1975), is named after a pop song by Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen's wife, while the simultaneously muscular nature of the paint application renders it more than acceptable to the he-man types who populate the world of Poons’s other obsession, vintage motorcycle racing (in 2003, he and his wife, the painter/sculptor Paula De Luccia, won a trophy for road racing couples).

Even at the tender age of 78, Poons maintains his interest in this sport, so it should not be too surprising that some of his biker buddies turned up for his opening reception – along with so many other people that all the wine was gone by 7:30 pm.

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