As a young painter in New York in the 1940s, Richard Pousette-Dart found himself among the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, though arguably he was not of them. Variously influenced by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Paul Manship and John Graham, his work rapidly developed a totemic figural sense in a modernist idiom. But Pousette-Dart was nimble at the easel. Many of the dozen or so paintings in this exhibition, â??East River Studio,â? created between 1946 and 1951 in a live-work space on East 56th Street, were sketchy and skeletal compared to the encrusted, fulsomely pointillist canvases for which the artist is known, and they wear that provisional quality well. Also on view were several sculptures from the same period.
The frontal organization and central vertical axis of the 6-by-4-foot Bridge Horizon (1950, oil on linen) seem to belie its title, but then Pousette-Dart was prone to reorienting his canvases; the catalogue includes documentation of
his 1950 exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery, showing the 3-by-6-foot acrylic on linen 59th Street Ramp (1947) hanging vertically, its pooling, blackish tracery twisting up, rather than across, a scratchy whitish ground.
This painterâ??s take on biomorphism has a visionary or Symbolist flavor and, keyed to strange light effects rather than Surrealist-inspired automatism, taps the unconscious in a way that recalls Odilon Redon more than AndrÃ© Masson. Ebony (1951) is a friezelike arrangement of three or four glossy black silhouettes; against a dark reddish ground streaked with cadmium yellow, they appear backlit by fireworks or flying sparks from a forge.
Even odder and more coloristically restrained is the 3-by-5-foot Ossi (1949). Interfering with the view of four hulking black shapesâ??slabs or plinthsâ??that crowd the frame are small hot spots of white light like firing flashbulbs. In the commanding 1948 oil Night World, the artist drew directly with a tube of white paint on a complex, layered blue-black ground, summoning a being that is equal parts plant, animal and architecture. These paintings, loosely geometric, rooted at the bottom edge with forms that suggest barriers, anticipate overt references to facades in later work.
Made of bundled wire and bits of found metal or wood, Pousette-Dartâ??s sculptures read primarily as clusters of lines cohering into animate forms. At 55 inches high, The Woman With a Horn (1949-50) was the largest of four freestanding pieces; it rested on a pedestal of the artistâ??s choosing, elevating its top to 6 feet. Untitled (The Web), a 1950 work measuring 50 by 50 by 18 inches, is a three-dimensional scribble painted a rich dark orange, stretched across a wood frame and hung on the wall. Placed at the exhibitionâ??s entrance, this unfamiliar work signaled that surprises were in store. Indeed, given the renewed appreciation of gestural paint handling, open-ended composition and expanded definitions of drawing, this fresh look at works that, in many cases, have not been seen since the â??50s was revelatory.
Photo: Richard Pousette-Dart: Night World, 1948, oil on linen, 55Â½ by 62Â¾ inches; at Luhring Augustine.