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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 (b. 1937). Rain of Terror, 1977. Acrylic on canvas, 111 1/2 x 108 inches (283.2 x 274.3cm). (Inv# 2953). Courtesy Yares Art.
At the tender age of 81, Larry Poons keeps on having so many shows that I have difficulty keeping up with him. But the last solo exhibition of his that I reviewed – exactly a year ago, and also at Yares Art– placed the emphasis on his recent paintings, and allotted only a smaller and less conspicuous space to the earlier ones. This time the shoe is on the other foot.

True, an alcove is still devoted to four charming brand-new images, with all the floral glory created by their many little paint strokes intact. However, the emphasis – and gallery’s main display area -- is dedicated to that decade beginning in the ‘70s when Poons inaugurated his now-famous practice of hurling paint at vertical canvases, and letting the paint course majestically down to the floor in tall, spare, dignified, multicolored “pours.” That is why the show is called “Larry Poons: Ruffles Queequeg + The Throw Decade – Paintings 1971 – 1981” (through October 27).

Now, I was raised to the nursery rhyme that begins, “It’s raining, it’s pouring….” Thus I see no difference between raining and pouring. Still, the first time I tried to explain my theory about multireferential imagery in abstract painting to Clement Greenberg, most likely sometime in the fall of 1982, he said, “It’s uneducated to see rain in a Poons.”

In 1983, when I decided I wanted to use this remark in an article that I was writing, I called him up and asked him about it. He then said that perhaps he’d made some such remark, but that what he meant was that trying to find imagery in an abstract painting was distracting, and made it more difficult to see the painting for itself.

He said that one could look at a painting, or into it. Looking into a painting, he implied, was how one saw imagery (even in abstract painting), but he preferred to look at a painting instead.

Decades later – specifically this past summer -- I found myself drawing two more analogies between looking “at” paintings as opposed to “into” them.

The first is related to writing about art. Looking into a painting, in order to see its imagery, is the basis for an iconographic interpretation of the painting in question.

Looking at the same painting, in order to appreciate its forms and colors, becomes the basis for a formal analysis.

The second is an art-historical analysis, based in Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960). This seminal tract by Ernst Gombrich, a distinguished Vienna-born art historian, was intended to rehabilitate representational art, in an era when Gombrich feared abstraction was becoming too important (it was originally a series of lectures delivered in 1956, the heyday of abstract expressionism).

In this book, Gombrich argued that every representational work of art had two aspects, which he equated to “making” and “matching.” “Matching” had to do with the desire on the part of the artist to create an image that conveyed an illusion of something in the external world, while “making” had to do with the desire on the part of the artist to create a work of art complete in itself.

To explain how these two qualities could co-exist in the same work of art, Gombrich had recourse to the now-celebrated duck-rabbit image that had originally appeared in an 1890s Austrian humor magazine: if you looked at it one way, it looked like a duck, but if you looked at it another way, it looked like a rabbit.

As far as Gombrich was concerned, this dual quality existed only in representational art; but if you are aware – as I am – of the way that an abstract painting can incorporate ambiguous images, then you can apply this dual quality of “making” and “matching” to some abstract painting as well (at least the best of it).

For me, therefore, “making” corresponds to formal values and analysis, as well as looking “at” pictures, while “matching” corresponds to iconographical values and analysis, as well as looking “into” pictures.

At least one reviewer of this Poons exhibition – Roberta Smith – has evidently looked long and reverently into Poons’s pours, and come up with a splendid array of multireferential imagery.

“Words like vines, rain, waterfalls and fountains run through the mind in this rare and wonderful show,” she writes, in the New York Times for September 28.

I, on the other hand, am backing away from this style of interpretation – for living artists, anyway. In my reviews, I still go in for a certain amount of analogy and figures of speech, but I no longer try to do what I did in that first 1983 article. This was to pair off the multireferential images I perceived in paintings with actual experiences on the part of the artist.

The idea was to show that these images could be and had been unconsciously communicated by abstract artists from memories of their own visual experience to viewers, and could be so recognized to the extent that these images corresponded with the visual experience of these viewers.

I still think this form of communication exists – but I no longer try and prove it through living artists. The biggest reason is the eloquent letter I got from Anne Truitt, in response to my 1983 article.

She agreed with me about my theory, but cautioned me that what abstract artists put into their paintings of their own experience is tremendously personal and private, to such a degree that stripping away their defenses and revealing what they were really painting would not be appreciated by them.

Poons, therefore, can relax. I won’t be talking about rain, but shall stick to matters of color and shape, formal qualities in other words.

This is not because I disagree with Smith about the analogies she perceived. I think they are all perfectly valid, but in the end I think formal qualities are what determine whether a painting lives or not. Iconography may be shared by more than one artist, but the way the painting actually looks must be uniquely marvelous if it is to survive.

Well, then, the centerpiece of this show is the series of twelve paintings that begins with the painting for which the show is named, “Ruffles Queequeg” (1972) and ends with one of the two largest and most dramatic paintings in the sequence, “Tantrum II” (1979).

As the gallery explains it, up until “Ruffles Queequeg,” Poons had for some time been painting with the canvas on the floor, and creating images that pooled or puddled paint instead of pouring it. With “Ruffles,” though, only the upper left-hand corner of the picture was painted while the canvas was on the floor.

The rest, especially a large semi-circular sweep from the upper right-hand corner to the lower left-hand corner, was done with the canvas upright, and the paint poured on. Though still not as dramatically poured as the later all-poured paintings, it has a lilting quality, accentuated by its overall golden-reddish tints.

The name of the painting alludes to Queequeg, a South Sea islander in Moby Dick, and seems to have been given to it by the artist because he saw this as an important transitional painting. It’s not, to be sure, Poons’s first transitional painting – there was another, back around 1968, named “Night Journey,” but “Ruffles Queequeg” is certainly elegant, and. as father to the sequence that follows, highly significant.

Some of these poured paintings are dark throughout: “Stanson Cross” (1978) is filled with rich deep browns, while the tall narrow “Ester” (1978) is dominated by dark blues.

Most ingratiating are the several that share with “Ruffles Queeqeg” a warm, pale and highly ingratiating palette of alizarin crimson and/or cadmium reds, lemon, apple green and on occasion ultramarine blues: here I mean “Wiseman” (1975), “No More Greasy Boots Allowed in Here” (1975), and above all, the masterly “Tantrum II,”

This very lovely latter painting, about 14 feet wide, is particularly anticipatory of later Poons, in that it combines a rich array of plant-green pours broadening over from the left to the far right, and contrasting with flower-like pinkish/purple pours on the lower left.

Call me a non-conformist, but the group of paintings which appealed to me the most were the three with the most contrast: “Lycoming” (1977), “Yellow Cat On Hand” (1976), and especially “Rain of Terror” (1977).

All three of these grand seas of paint are distinguished by very dark or relatively dark underlying fields of color, lit up with brighter, sometimes white pours and spatters of paint on top. Somehow the dark field – like the classic good little black dress – has a style and élan all its own. And – just as in haute couture – the dark background makes the bright surface drips and spatters sparkle like the gems that they are.
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