Art historians are prone to categorizing artists into groups or movements based on style, technique and philosophy. But for every such pigeonhole there are rogue artists or outliers who deviate from the set standards. Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-1992) is generally positioned within the Abstract Expressionist movement, but the current exhibition at Pace Gallery, his first in the Palo Alto venue, demonstrates how he veered away from his better-known colleagues (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko) in order to find his own path.
On view until Dec. 23 (by appointment only), the show consists of 16 paintings and works on paper that range in date from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.
Pace Gallery usually makes a point to refrain from a lot of didactic labeling, but this show opens with five densely patterned roundels from the artist's "Cosmos" series and a lengthy essay that helps to explain Pousette-Dart's philosophy and working method. This is a good idea, since most people are not familiar with him, in spite of his association with the Abstract Expressionist movement.
Born in Minnesota, Pousette-Dart found fame in New York City as one of the pioneering artists working in the new, avant garde style of abstraction. He was included in the groundbreaking "Forty American Moderns" exhibition of 1944 and, along with Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Hans Hoffman and Mark Tobey, in Peggy Guggenheim's" Spring Salon for Young Artists." He was one of the youngest members of the "Irascibles," a contingent of artists who dared the Metropolitan Museum of Art to display more nonrepresentational art. He claimed a place at the notorious Cedar Bar, along with his hard-drinking, rebellious colleagues but, by 1951, sought a quieter life and eventually moved with his wife to Suffern, New York.
Liz Sullivan, president of Pace Palo Alto, noted that the exhibition reflects the artist's fluid working style, from the paintings bordered by thick black contour lines to his lighter, almost pointillist paintings that focus on spiritual ideas. She also commented on how Pousette-Dart further distanced himself from the Abstract Expressionist group by becoming a scholar, teaching at the New School for Social Research, Columbia University and the Art Students League.
"He was a highly independent innovator among 20th-century abstract painters, and this presentation is a reminder of Pousette-Dart's ability to explore visual possibilities and create paintings and drawings that represent the unknowable," she said.
"Imploding Black," "Radiance Number Eight" and "Presence Number Three (Black)" all employ tiny daubs of paint, applied in the characteristic all-over style of the Abstract Expressionists. Unlike Pollock, who used ordinary house paints in much of his work, Pousette-Dart used acrylic and oil paint to achieve these large-scale color studies. And it is amazing how the viewer's mood can be manipulated as you move from the bright, almost sunny, oranges in "Radiance" to the somber, serious tones of gray and black in "Presence Number Three." There is no doubt that Pousette-Dart shared Pollock's philosophy toward abstraction but their approach is noticeably different. Pollock worked in a free-form, spontaneous way -- practically dancing above the canvas. In these paintings, we see that Pousette-Dart was much more methodical, deliberate and planned in both his application of paint and how he approached color and optics.
The next room in the gallery contains works that could be perceived as having a kinship with the color squares of Mark Rothko. These paintings tackle the subject of geometry and the juxtaposition of circles, squares and rectangles within bordered canvases. Unlike Rothko, whose colors bled and transfused into each other, Pousette-Dart contains the forms, painted in deep black, as they float within the grey background. Stand before "Transcendental Red" and gaze at the scarlet oblong, painted in such a thick impasto it almost seems like a carpet. Texture, form and color contrast are the themes here and how the manipulation of these facets impact the viewer's mood and perception.
Although Pousette-Dart believed that all art was abstract, to a degree, he eschewed the Abstract Expressionist label and preferred to call his paintings "presences" and "implosions of color."
In a talk at the Boston Museum School in 1951, the artist said, "Art for me is the heavens forever opening up, like asymmetrical, unpredictable, spontaneous kaleidoscopes. It is magic, it is joy, it is gardens of surprise and miracle."
The last room of the exhibition reflects the artist's delight in contrasting modes of expression. "Le Jardin Rouge" is red, bold, large and almost aggressive in the thick application of small dots of complementary blue, green and yellow paint. This is not the angst-filled outpouring of a Pollock, but rather the patient study of a man who believed that "art is energy, impulse. It is the question and the answer." Directly across the gallery is "Radiance Number 3" in which subtle gradations of soft pastels evoke a dream-like state, calm and introspective.
In writing about this exhibition, it really is not enough to try to place Pousette-Dart within the canon of an art historical movement or to even try to describe his work. And it does not come across effectively in reproduction; it should be seen. The artist himself would probably agree. During the above-mentioned talk, Pousette-Dart said, "Paintings can not be explained, they have a life and a being and a voice of their own, they must be personally experienced."
Gallery visits can be scheduled at pacegallery.com/reservations.
Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at [email protected]