Young Pousette-Dart, A Precocious Master, Stood on Frontier

Although the American painter Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-1992) has long been recognized as one of the founding talents of the New York School, the full scope of his enormous oeuvre has seldom been accorded the attention its merits. Not only was Pousette-Dart one of the youngest of the Abstract Expressionist painters, but with the painting called Symphony No. 1: The Transcendental (1941-42), which was exhibited at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1947, he produced the New York School’s first large-scale abstraction. It measures 90 by 120 inches and currently hangs in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Prior to his emergence as a precocious Abstract Expressionist, Pousette-Dart had established himself on the New York art scene with paintings and drawings of a quite different persuasion, and it’s to these all-but-forgotten early works that we’re recalled in the current exhibition at Knoedler and Company: Richard Pousette-Dart: Mythic Heads and Forms . The show brings together the early work that was exhibited in 1941 at the Artists Gallery, a nonprofit space that gave many young artists their first solo exhibitions. The director was a man named Hugh Stix, who was something of a legend in his day, and among the gallery’s advisers were such art-world eminences as Meyer Schapiro and James Johnson Sweeney.

This is anything but apprentice work: What’s almost shocking about these beautifully painted symbolic portraits, still lifes and landscapes is the boldness of their forms and the brilliance of their color. High-energy structures of emphatically applied black paint provide aggressive armatures for the dazzling enclosures of color and light they contain, and every canvas seems to vibrate with a momentum of its own. Nowhere is there the least hint of diffidence or uncertainty. At times, the paintings seem barely able to support the passion and headlong invention that went into their making. All this, by the way, from a painter who was in his late teens or early 20’s.

Also remarkable is the range of sources that the young Pousette-Dart was able to draw upon in creating a pictorial style all his own. As John Yau writes in the catalog for the Knoedler show, “In his synthesis of sources as diverse as African, Oceanic, and Northwest Indian art, Byzantine icons, the American visionaries Ralph Albert Blakelock and Albert Pinkham Ryder, the paintings of Picasso, Klee, and Miró, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s vorticist sculpture, and theosophical thinking, it is amply evident that Pousette-Dart felt completely at ease with the complex lessons offered by primitive, ancient, and modern art, as well as those contained within hermetic doctrines.” In short, Pousette-Dart was something of a master from the outset of his career.

He was fortunate, to be sure, in enjoying certain privileges and opportunities that are denied to most young artists. He was born to parents who were themselves passionately involved in the arts. His father, Nathaniel Pousette-Dart, was a painter and a well-known writer on art. (I have a particularly fond memory of an essay he wrote about the paintings of Ryder.) Richard’s mother was a poet. There was thus no suggestion of rebellion, nothing of the ethos of the révolte in his choice of vocation. Brought up in an atmosphere in which art was regarded as the highest spiritual value, the young Pousette-Dart came both to painting and to the frontiers of modernism as a natural inheritance. Few painters in the history of American art have entered upon a career with so little sense of trauma or resistance.

Few have been so copious in production or so various in their talents, either. In this respect, New York hasn’t always been the best place to see his work. Neither the comprehensive retrospective that Joanne Kuebler organized at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1990, nor the big show of The Living Edge: Richard Pousette-Dart, Works on Paper, 1937-1992 that Konrad Oberhuber organized at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, in 2001, ever came near New York. An abridged version of Ms. Kuebler’s exhibition traveled to the Phillips Collection in Washington, and Dr. Oberhuber’s exhibition traveled to Texas and Florida, but in New York we are still waiting for a full-scale retrospective-and not only of the paintings and drawings. Pousette-Dart was also a master photographer, but as far as I can remember, it’s only at the Zabriskie Gallery, in 1996, 1997 and 2001, that New Yorkers have been shown this important aspect of the artist’s oeuvre . Some of the many sketchbooks and other works on paper have been exhibited at Knoedler, but nothing on the scale of the Frankfurt show. There’s sculpture to be seen, too. For that matter, we’re still waiting for a comprehensive retrospective of the Abstract Expressionist paintings.

Well, some day, perhaps. Meanwhile, the earliest examples of the artist’s work can be seen in Richard Pousette-Dart: Mythic Heads and Forms-Paintings and Drawings from 1935-1942 at Knoedler and Company, 19 East 70th Street, through Nov. 5.

Young Pousette-Dart, A Precocious Master, Stood on Frontier