Among admirers of the late Richard Pousette-Dart, the exhibition of his paintings that has now been organized by Lowery Stokes Sims at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is likely to elicit some mixed emotions-on the one hand, gratitude and delight that this still underrated and often misunderstood modern master has at last been accorded official recognition by the greatest of our museums; yet, on the other hand, disappointment that the exhibition has come so late and is so woefully unequal in scale to the actual dimensions of the artist’s achievement.
Richard Pousette-Dart was one of the youngest and most precocious painters of the New York School. He was also one of the most productive, enjoying a career that was far longer than almost any of his contemporaries in the Abstract Expressionist movement. He came to his vocation as an abstract painter earlier than most, and in the painting called Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental (1941-42), he produced at the age of 26 what may very well be the first large-scale masterwork of the New York School. And he continued to create paintings of remarkable quality, variety and size for another 50 years.
Yet it is a fact of cultural life in the 1990’s that this artist’s work still remains more or less unknown to the many people in the New York art world who fancy they know everything there is to know about the art of the New York School. All of this might have definitively changed had the marvelous retrospective organized by Joanne Kuebler in 1990 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art come to New York. But it didn’t, and so an entire younger generation in the New York art world-including some of its critics-has been left in ignorance about a body of work never actually seen in all of its amazing variety and depth.
It is no criticism of Ms. Sims, who has devoted many years to the study of the artist’s work, to report that the exhibition she has now organized in Richard Pousette-Dart, 1916-1992 is not a retrospective on the scale of the Indianapolis exhibition. Consisting, as it does, of 33 paintings from the years 1939-1990, plus some early drawings, a few sketchbooks and a display of brass objects, the current exhibition at the Met is more in the nature of an introduction to the artist’s oeuvre than a full-scale account of it. As such, it serves its purpose well, and it has the additional virtue of bringing us certain pictures that few of us are likely to have seen before. The scandal is that an artist of Pousette-Dart’s accomplishment still needs an “introduction” to our increasingly amnesiac art public.
It needs also to be said, however, that Pousette-Dart’s paintings do not easily conform to certain ideas that have come to be identified with the art of the New York School. There is little in his painting, for example, that resembles the kind of athletic improvisational gesture that characterizes certain works of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and there is even less that conforms to the hard-edge geometrical forms we find in Ad Reinhardt or the fields of unbroken color in Barnett Newman. From the outset, Pousette-Dart was a painter who brought a more deliberate, painstaking concentration to the physical realization of the painted surface. While many of his contemporaries in the New York School worked toward simplifying their forms and thinning their facture to a watercolorlike transparency, Pousette-Dart remained committed to working by means of a slow accretion of dense painterly touches that brought to his pictures a visual richness and complexity that could not be achieved by any other means.
The miracle is that a pictorial method so dependent upon the working and reworking of the painting’s material density should result in an imagery of such extraordinary spiritual radiance. But this is the miracle we encounter in all of the artist’s most successful pictures. It is all the more remarkable when we see, as we are able to do in the current exhibition, that this essential impulse in Pousette-Dart’s work has its origins in an art immersed in nocturnal shadows-not only in Symphony No. 1 but in Figure (1944-45), Fugue No. 4 (1947), and certain other early pictures-and only slowly found its way toward celebrating a kind of celestial light in Path of the Hero (1950), Chavade (1951) and in so many of the paintings that follow in the remaining decades of the artist’s life.
It was in the pursuit of that celestial light, which gave expression to the artist’s mystical beliefs, that Pousette-Dart’s pictorial imagination was most deeply engaged throughout his long career. Lest it be thought peculiar that painting of this abstract persuasion should owe so much to mystical belief, it is worth recalling that the principal pioneers of abstract painting-Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky and Kasimir Malevich-were all similarly disposed to identify their pictorial innovations with a variety of mystical ideas. Far from being an eccentric in this respect, Pousette-Dart may be said to have carried forward one of the central traditions of modernist painting in allying his art with the realm of mystical thought.
For nonmystics like myself, however, this inevitably raises the question of exactly how we are to respond to the “content” of an art so deeply immersed in a mode of mystical belief. The best answer to that question that I know of is to be found in one of the essays of Wallace Stevens, written around 1937, in which this great poet offered some reflections on the problem of “the irrational” and “the unknown.”
“The irrational bears the same relation to the rational that the unknown bears to the known,” wrote Stevens. “In an age as harsh as it is intelligent, phrases about the unknown are quickly dismissed. I do not for a moment mean to indulge in mystical rhetoric, since, for my part, I have no patience with that sort of thing.” But then, Stevens reverses his course by observing: “That the unknown as the source of knowledge, as the object of thought, is part of the dynamics of the known does not permit of denial.” And further: “We accept the unknown even when we are most skeptical. We may resent the consideration of it by any except the most lucid mind; but when so considered, it has seductions more powerful and more profound than those of the known.”
This may be a useful thought for visitors to the Pousette-Dart exhibition at the Met to bear in mind as they encounter some of the artist’s statements that are inscribed on the walls of the show and quoted at greater length in Ms. Sims’ contribution to its catalogue. As Stephen Polcari also makes clear in his essay for the catalogue, to ignore such questions in relation to the art of the New York School is to ignore something essential about the ideas that shaped the early course of the Abstract Expressionist movement. It is certainly to ignore something essential about the ideas that governed the art of Richard Pousette-Dart.
But in regard to our understanding of that art, the current exhibition at the Met must be regarded more as a beginning than a culmination. There is far more to be discovered in Pousette-Dart’s oeuvre than the public has ever been shown or the critics have ever written about. Meanwhile, the show at the Met remains on view through Feb. 22, and there are also two other current exhibitions of the artist’s work to be seen: paintings at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street, through Nov. 29; and Pousette-Dart’s photographs, at the Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through Dec. 20.