The American painter Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-1992), whose very large late paintings are the subject of an enchanting exhibition at Knoedler & Company, was often described in his lifetime as the youngest of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School. He was indeed younger than Pollock, de Kooning and a few other artists in that group, and his paintings were often exhibited with theirs. Yet in neither his art nor his life did Pousette-Dart have much in common with the artists of that group.
For one thing, he was never any sort of Expressionist. The bravura gestural style that we associate with Pollock, de Kooning et al. was entirely alien to Pousette-Dart’s sensibility; so was the hard-drinking bohemian lifestyle of the painters who made the Cedar Tavern a favorite destination of art-world groupies. Pousette-Dart’s interest in the social life of the fashionable art world was practically nil. By temperament and conviction he was a family man, and his was a family of artists: His father was a painter and art writer; his mother a writer; and his children, too, have pursued careers in art and music.
What principally sets Pousette-Dart apart from his contemporaries in the New York School, however, is something else: his mystical outlook on life. This is also the key to understanding his art, which is deeply introspective. It’s in the nature of mysticism to erase all boundaries between the seen and the unseen, and in the particular mode of abstraction that Pousette-Dart created in these late paintings, there are no divisions separating foreground and background space. Conventional pictorial space is abandoned in favor of myriad points of color that expand as we observe them into mural-scale fields of light.
The result isn’t exactly pointillism as we usually encounter it, but rather a shimmer of unbounded optical sensation that, owing to the huge dimensions of the canvas— Field of Blue (1986-88), for example, is 80 inches wide and 40 inches tall—summons the eye to dwell in an alternative world.
Pousette-Dart preferred to think of these paintings as “presences” rather than abstractions, and he also characterized them as “implosions” of color. “Implosion” strikes me as too violent a term to describe the contemplative character of his paintings, which gently radiate their chromatic magic on a preternatural scale. However we describe these paintings, they must surely be regarded as one of the most original and ambitious achievements in the history of abstract painting.
In intent, if not in style, they also recall us to Vasily Kandinsky’s celebrated treatise, “On the Spiritual in Art.” But whereas Kandinsky focused on geometric form as a symbol of the spiritual in art, Pousette-Dart beckoned the more capacious resources of unbounded light and color, thus uniting the metaphysical realm of spirit and the earthbound realm of physical observation.
Pousette-Dart was a more highly accomplished artist than he’s usually given credit for. It may be that his mystical temperament acted as a break on the kind of self-promotion that so many other painters of his generation cultivated so successfully. Whatever the reason for underestimating his achievements in the past, the current exhibition at Knoedler & Company once again establishes his claim to the front ranks in the history of abstract art.
Presences: The Imploding of Color remains on view at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street, through Jan. 7, 2006. It’s accompanied by a beautifully produced catalog, with each of the paintings in the show reproduced in color in a large format.