The Walter Darby Bannard Archive

Larry Poons: Paintings of the 1970s (2007)

Catalogue essay for "Larry Poons: Throw, Pour, Drip, Spill & Splash" at Jacobson Howard Gallery, New York.

It is a great pleasure to see these pictures and write about them. I have known Larry Poons and his paintings since the early '60s and similar things have happened in our painting careers at similar times, all the way back to a group show at Dick Bellamy's Green Gallery in 1963. He is one of the very best painters of our generation and this gorgeous, well-selected exhibit of paintings from the '70s is palpable evidence for that assertion.

In the '60s, in the spirit of that time, Poons made large reductivist paintings with flat, bright colored fields marked with small, regularly spaced colored dots and ellipses. In the late '60s, between the bright certainty of those dot paintings and the gritty rivulets of the throw paintings, we see here Poons spent a good five years or more overhauling his art, as clear forms and even surfaces disintegrated into patches of paint strewn on large canvases laid flat on the floor. This is no way to enhance a career. You build an audience for one kind of picture and then turn around and make another, completely new and much more abrasive kind of picture and you lose your public. Why do it?

I went through something similar at the same time, and I know why, but it arises from inner urgencies which are hard to articulate. I call it seriousness: the reckless necessity to make your art as good as you can make it, whatever the consequences. You just do it. It took courage for him to go through this change and it wasn't easy from any angle. That's why so few artists, even talented artists, go back into their art and tear it apart and rebuild it. Many of our reigning art stars have had one good idea and have lived on it for a whole career.

By the early '70s Poons had set the canvas up vertically again and began throwing paint at it, enabling the painting to "compose itself" as the semi-liquefied acrylic resolved into a regular pattern of runs from top to bottom. This vertically striated surface is a template for the visual interaction of the colors and an organizing principle which both replaced the more calculated spot-and-field method and allowed the paint to be "painterly," to look like paint, like a colored fluid rather than an "unnatural" dot or ellipse. He also discovered that it allowed an entire long roll of canvas - 11 yards, as I remember - to be painted as one continuum and then cropped into smaller paintings.

The paintings here were made when the throwing method had been well worked out and refined, if I can use such a word in the face of pictures this patently raw and uningratiating. There's a primal aggressiveness to these blurred and blistered surfaces which is an analog to the headlong procedure. Like Pollock, Poons extended his "stroke" by flinging paint, but a classic Pollock looks almost dainty next to a Poons. A Pollock painting lets us in by opening up the linear tangle and spinning a gratifying scaffold of depth illusion. There are hints of this in some Poons pictures - the festooned recession of Lycoming or the breaks back to the canvas background in others - but the Poons surface is more flat, forward and in-your-face. Paintings like Claudio and Vespyrs offer no relief, no "air," no handy lure to hook us. They are nothing more than paint come to life, and they rub your nose in it. That they work at all, and so beautifully, is an attribute of their compelling strength. Here is some of the best painting of our generation.