With Pace Gallery having opened a centennial exhibition of Richard Pousette-Dart’s work earlier this week in New York, we turn back to the April 1961 issue of ARTnews, in which Jack Kroll wrote about why the artist’s paintings had been unjustly lumped in with those of the Abstract Expressionists. Below, Kroll’s article follows in full.
“Richard Dart: Transcendental Expressionist”
By Jack Kroll
Unfairly overlooked among pioneer Abstract Expressionists, his show this month again reveals his unique vision of symbols in form
Richard Pousette-Dart’s work has always had a share of recognition, but it has never had the natural (and sometimes unnatural) superfluity of share which appears to be the portion of those artists who form the convivial—in the root sense of the word—academy of the age. He has never had one on the house from the Zeitgeist. Because he is a sensitive man, he is not unaware of the painfulness of this situation. Born in 1916 in St. Paul, Minn., Pousette-Dart has had at least fifteen one-man shows in the past twenty years and has had his niche in many representative exhibitions by type of art, age of artist and other such dragnet operations which automatically bring in most of the local suspects. But somehow he has never been invested with that perpetual aura of cultural candidacy which has sprung up around so many of his contemporaries. And since he is an excellent, idiosyncratic and particularly American painter, the reasons of this deserve looking into.
In 1951 the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition of “Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America,” covering a period of almost four decades, or back to the Armory Show of 1913. The paintings were grouped under five headings; Pousette-Dart came under “Expressionist Biomorphic,” along with among others, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and William Baziotes. Among the characteristics of this kind of painting, as defined by Andrew C. Ritchie in the catalogue, were: “Irregular-shaped forms and calligraphic interlacings bearing, if any, a relation to organic or anatomical forms; composed usually in dynamic, symbolic or emotively suggestive relationships; often showing evidence of automatist or ‘doodling’ origin,” and its origins were Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism. The point is that if a similar exhibition were held tomorrow, Pousette-Dart would probably still be found among the denizens of “Biomorphic Expressionism,” while the unisolated but now historically decisive category of Abstract-Expressionism would claim his more powerful colleagues in that transitory collocation. In the 1940s there as a certain family resemblance between the works of Gorky, Rothko, Gottlieb and even Pollock, and Pousette-Dart; the explosion, the liquefying of an inchoate gaseous energy into the high-octane fuel of Abstract-Expressionism propelled the “significant” American painters right out of Pousette-Dart’s neighborhood and into a brand-new fighting-gang: most of the Sharks became the Jets.
Thus the wrenching violence of the historical trajectory has left Pousette-Dart “behind,” and has given him something of the appearance of a cantankerous and even “eccentric” American original. His work has been amazingly of a piece from the very beginning, and speaking about it, which is not easy for him, is made doubly difficult by an insistence on the part of the questioner concerning influences, dates, chronology, development, and the rest of the historical-analytical apparatus that many painters find quite logical and even congenial. He thinks of his work as unified by a consistency of impulse and motive, and he has no interest at all in the kind of technical discussion which separates the methods and techniques of painting from the matrix of concept and execution which to him is the indissoluble tissue of art. The inexorable growth of a sense of technical crisis, shared by so many of the most seminal American painters who are roughly his age, is something which is so alien to his outlook as to induce in him an almost agonized suspicion that is more than anything else a measure of his distance from their concerns.
Pousette-Dart thinks of himself as a religious painter—“religious in a passionate sense.” Harold Rosenberg, in his 1952 article in ARTNEWS which baptized the “American Action Painters,” spoke of the “new movement” as “essentially a religious movement.” But, although the work of both Pousette-Dart and the other Action Painters may be said to concern itself in one way or another with myth, the genetic and generative background of religion, the weight and force of these myths could not be more different. The myth of the Action Painters is the birth of a hero; the myth of Pousette-Dart is the life of an oracular poet. It is perhaps this difference which has given the contemporaneity of the Action Painters much more of a glittering cutting-edge than that of Pousette Dart; the cultural impasses and traffic-jams of our time have made the heroic aspect of the artist’s personality and operation much the most compelling one both for himself and his communicants. Pousette-Dart speaks of his work as a “reflection of being”—this phrase establishes both the closeness and the distance that separates him from the still-being-measured electrical charge of Abstract-Expressionism, which also has a great deal to do with “being,” but whose most representative works are attempted procreations of chancy “new” beings rather than reflections of a transcendent being beyond the arc of human engendering.
Cassirer, in Language and Myth, says: “Myth, language and art begin as a concrete, undivided unity, which is only gradually resolved into a triad of independent modes of spiritual creativity. Consequently, the same mythic animation and hypostatization which is bestowed upon the words of human speech is originally accorded to images, to every kind of artistic representation … The image … achieves its purely representative, specifically ‘esthetic’ function only as the magic circle with which mythical consciousness surrounds it is broken, and it is recognized not as a mythic-magical form, but as a particular sort of formulation.”
Pousette-Dart’s symbolic iconography is a language of such formulations. The success of his art will depend on the rightness of the esthetic strategy, as it deploys the rationales of the artist’s craft to intercept in loving forays the continuous flux of unconscious imagery, so that the “magic circle” is broken and re-formed in a constant choreography of raids on the transcendent. Pousette-Dart makes no preliminary sketches or drawings. “Each work is the whole experience from beginning to end within itself. My intention is never the surface but always the inner expression. I strive for the poetic, musical spirit of form through line. All of my work is an attempt to make a structure which stands up by the presence and significance of its own mystical meaning. It is a thing within itself, mirroring different things to different minds.” In this statement, originally referring specifically to a painting of the early 1950s, White Garden, we see clearly the transcendental, in an almost Emersonian sense, nature of Pousette-Dart’s art of religious passion, with its emphasis on self-sufficiency of the individual as an index of the multiple (and even inexhaustable) efficiency of the artist who successfully creates his mystical, musical structure. Pousette-Dart has said: “A painter can paint for the satisfaction of his soul, but he can mean it for everyone.”
White Garden is one of a number of paintings from the early 1950s which are “drawings of lines and rubbing with ordinary lead pencil and titanium white pigment on canvas. It is drawn over and over again until suddenly it contains itself to my feeling.” These paintings are perhaps the least successful he has done; they are reminiscent of the pitfall of the sentimentality of process into which Mark Tobey has now and again fallen, they are like the gestures, the outward forms, the rehearsals, of Pousette-Dart’s characteristic rituals without the final, celebratory fanfare of his exfoliated sacrament. Although Pousette-Dart has used white effectively as a costume for his symbiotic drama, he has achieved his most beautiful effects with color, for which he has a direct and natural feeling both as a “body” for his forms and as an emotional code for the terrain of his iconography. He conceives of the use of color as the central phase of a passage “from white to white,” the record of a metaphysical duration, a Dionysian traversing of poles, “like an area of ground where much dancing has occurred.” This reminds one of Eliot in the Four Quartets: “The complete consort dancing together”—Pousette-Dart has a similar sense of the materials of poetic gesture which can interlock to form a network of meanings in movement with the entire unity (in the case of the painter) shimmering in a sort of amniotic bath of color, that serves to loosen any adhesions of poetic correspondence which might have coarsened the symbology and weakened its plastic provenance. In Penetration, a work of 1958, the passage is from the comparatively uneventful neutrality of color at the periphery of the canvas inward to a “bull’s-eye” climax of yellows, reds, oranges, blues and mustard, with the building up of the paint giving an effect as of a pulverized mosaic, a fused, vitreous Rosetta Stone of lyric gnosticism, a simple calmly achieved success of Pousette-Dart’s quiet but unmistakably genuine reach for ecstasy in the apprehension of relationships among the incunabula of mythic mind.
The art of Richard Pousette-Dart seems very much in the line of American “home-made” eidolonian transcendentalism. He is a natural abstractionist in somewhat the same sense that Hart Crane was a natural composer of “abstract” poems—in both cases the complete saturation of the artist in words or signs, produces, through a kind of volitional automatism, a verbal or visual artifact which at its most successful has the compelling power release in the beholder the double sense of the procedural and substantive potency of images formed by the constantly functioning sense of the ineffable as it informs and penetrates the time-bound continuity of our senses. Th dangers of this kind of art, the hermetic numbness that may ensue when the reach fails and the forms parade in juggled dissonance rather than musical articulation, the aborting of the thrust toward complete visualization from the amorphous unconscious, the overly static fenestration of symbols when “family delight” overwhelms poetic renewal—these menacing whirlpools Pousette-Dart, an unusually prolific artist, avoids with remarkable frequency. He has a freshness of approach from picture to picture, a sometimes the approach can become almost an attack, as in a painting calls Savage Rose, where a massing of tall longitudinal forms of ravishing color, sweetened and savaged by the use of drip, bodies forth, not for
only time in his work, an instinct for the barbarism of a complex naïveté, one might say explosively provincial, the heady ritual mead of a Whitman-esque Klee, with no desperation to know m to be, but only the unremitting desire to trumpet one’s primal love of the particularized universal.