The Price of Everything is a documentary by Nathaniel Kahn released in 2018 that investigates the accelerating monetization of the art world, although that’s hardly breaking news. But there is a refreshing exception to all the talk about strategies, market values, and the crackle of applause that affirms an evening’s skyrocketing sales: Larry Poons, the scrappy veteran abstract painter and the film’s unlikely hero.
One scene shows him purposefully walking through the snow-carpeted ground from his house to the nearby barn that serves as his studio in East Durham, N.Y. At nearly 82, he is wiry and rosy-cheeked, and in his eyes a twinkle now and then appears. His head is snugly capped and his clothes are caked with paint, as are his hands and nails. In short, he looks like a working artist and not so different from equally paint-bespattered photos of him from the 1970s, except for the pure white of his still enviably thick hair. We enter the studio with the camera, encountering an explosion of color from an entire roll of canvas that stretches all the way across one wall, making the studio look like a greenhouse in exuberant bloom. From the roll, Poons will crop a number of paintings, as he has been doing since 1971. Once, when some musicians from The Rolling Thunder Revue came to his loft to jam, Bob Dylan among them, he asked Dylan where the canvas he was working on should be cropped. “He knew straight off,” Poons exclaimed. And Dylan also named the painting Pumpkin for its colors.
The studio, an un-gussied-up space Poons has owned since 1982, offers a nostalgic glance at a certain rough-and-ready authenticity that disdained materialism (or at least excessive amounts of it during downtown’s pre-gentrified days). Who needs it when you could be flinging paint in your studio, hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, playing in the band The Druds with fellow artists Walter de Maria and La Monte Young (with Jasper Johns as lyricist), listening to Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso read poetry in a café you opened, or easy-riding your 1965 250 Ducati Diana, 1971 Seeley Condor, or 1986 Suzuki GSXR 1100 to win championships or go on the road to look for America?
In the film, Poons remarks, “They think I’m dead, and have thought so for a long time.” He is prone to observations that can be elliptical, speaking in “koans,” as art critic Robert Pincus-Witten once noted, but he can also be bracingly blunt about art, the art world, and himself. While he had a higher profile in the past, he has always been around, making challenging, unpredictable paintings since first arriving in New York more than six decades ago. He’s had a solo or two-person show almost every year since 1963—not to mention the many group shows he’s been in—and is a central figure in the drama of the New York School. Poons’ work is also part of numerous private and public collections, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. And in a second act—or is it a third?—his last several shows have earned him yet another spate of critical acclaim and new fans.
Lawrence Poons, better known as Larry, was born on October 1, 1937, in Tokyo, Japan. He thought he would become a musician but changed his mind after seeing an exhibition by Barnett Newman in New York at French & Company in 1959 that included one of Newman’s masterpieces, Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–51). He had studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston from 1955–57, intending to become a musician and composer, but was so captivated by what he saw that he decided to become a painter instead and enrolled in the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. (Later he studied at the Art Students League in New York, where he also taught for years.) Mondrian, whom he discovered a little earlier, was another game-changer for Poons, who found in the Dutch master’s keen, intuitive sense of placement something he called “the human element.” It would, although not always discernibly, anchor his work throughout its subsequent transformations.
After he graduated, Poons moved to New York in 1958, when he was 21, and quickly made a name for himself. In 1963, he was given his first solo exhibition, at Richard Bellamy’s fabled Green Gallery, followed by shows at Leo Castelli, Lawrence Rubin, Knoedler, and Andre Emmerich. Poons is currently represented by Yares Art, where he will have a solo exhibition this November.
In 1965, curator William Seitz included Poons in the landmark Op Art show “The Responsive Eye” at MoMA, along with Josef Albers, Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, and others. Henry Geldzahler of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of the most influential curators of the time, put him in “New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940–1970,” a landmark survey of 43 contemporary artists celebrating the museum’s centennial. Almost all are now household names, among them Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Dan Flavin, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, and Frank Stella. Of that illustrious group of established and rising art stars, Poons, at 33, was the youngest.
His handsome, seldom-seen ’50s work was associated with hard-edged abstraction. But it was his paintings from the early 1960s that were his breakthrough, featuring dots and ellipses against monochromatic grounds of complementary hues that dazzle the eye. Enthusiastically received, they were linked to Op Art and Color Field and approved by the influential critic Clement Greenberg whose pronouncements, for many, defined the new American art.
Poons’ process at the time consisted of placing a dot of color or two into the units of a grid that had been inscribed onto the canvas; this had similarities with the early works of Frank Stella (a lifelong friend), Carl Andre, and Donald Judd. Simple as this was, it created a remarkable optical vibrato and suggested a kind of counterpoint that Poons likened to Bach. Poons often refers to classical composers, saying that, as an artist, he wants to be a Mozart or a Beethoven, not a flash in the pan, not someone holding on to one idea, afraid to change, afraid to fail. He has never been averse to risk. To him, a failed painting “is one that could have been great.”
Even as the works he created shifted, music remained a constant inspiration. References to it often pop up in Poons’ conversation and in the titles of his works, and the visual movement and pulsations of his canvases can be likened to musical tempos. The dots were thought by some to be a kind of notation that equated sound with the syncopation of color and form, as in Brown Sound (1968), or, as Mondrian had done in Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1942–43) and Victory Boogie-Woogie (1944). Poons might agree with the eminent Victorian aesthete Walter Pater, who claimed, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”
By 1964, Poons was ready to move away from Bauhaus and Minimalist theories, rebelling against the limitations imposed by Greenbergian formalism, by the dogma of flatness. Ironically, the circles and ellipses that first brought Poons acclaim and secured his reputation turned out be an anomaly, at odds with the greater body of his work as he pushed onward. He wanted to make paintings based on paint’s materiality, which looked as good as paint itself does. For him, paint was the essential nature of painting, not flatness. He also didn’t want to make the same painting over and over again, hogtied to a signature style or a particular school, and he was disdainful of labels that didn’t explain anything about his paintings or about why he was a painter.
Greenberg invited Poons to show in “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” a seminal show he curated for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964, but Poons turned him down. Reportedly, it was because only smaller-scaled works were being selected, but Poons was distancing himself from Greenberg; the final break took place in 1966. By the next year, Poons had moved into a more untrammeled painterly style, the dots and ellipses becoming less defined; he abandoned them altogether in the 1970s when he began to make all-over “throw” paintings that waterfalled downward from the top in a mapping of verticality, a gravity’s rainbow.
One sumptuous example is the magnificent, luminously colored Railroad Horse (1971), a torrent of vertical pink rivulets over 25 feet long, lit up by electric orange and pale blue—a sizzling neon aurora borealis. Poons flung buckets of paint, poured, dripped, used his fingers and palms. He was assaulting the canvas, caressing it, picking up where Pollock left off. He also stopped using a brush and didn’t wield one again until 1994, although the canvas on the floor was now on the wall again.
In 1981, he had a retrospective at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in which he showed paintings with surfaces built up from foam rubber, rope, paper, and other materials— “elephant-skinned,” as art historian and critic Michael Fried dubbed them. As time went by, his palette seesawed between vivid and somber, his surfaces from gossamer to thick and substantial. With some areas opaque and others washy or left barely painted, the works are comparable to late Monet waterlilies, Bonnard’s sun-infused exteriors, gauzy Renoirs and a host of predecessors from Rembrandt to de Kooning. Poons achieved a synthesis of European painting—especially Impressionism—with American Abstract Expressionism. He would load a lot of paint onto a surface with utmost deftness, delicacy, and nuance, using dissonant jolts of color to inject edge, tautness, and ballast and prevent glibness.
This period lasted about 20 years, into the 1990s, in an idiosyncratic trajectory that went from poured and thrown paintings to the elephant-skin series to collaged paintings embedded with studio rubbish, until Poons arrived at what might be considered his mature style. This two-decade evolution can no longer be considered erratic and arbitrary but was clearly organic and essential to his development. Always independent and restless, he refuses to be pinned down. When asked about his process, he said, characteristically, that there is no process: “The process is just painting.” He also often says he feels that he is a “bystander” in the making of his own paintings.
In his most recent work, the artist seems to have thrown in all he has learned and assimilated about art and nature. Their extended surfaces—Poons is never daunted by the epic—are roiled by swirls of paint ranging from staccato to glissando, raised, soaked-in. The brushwork snags and then unravels in perpetual, glorious motion, an extravagant interpretation of plein air painting, conjuring gardens of earthly delight basking in the light of a perennial south, a sensation more than an image, like music. Poons is a prodigious colorist, and his recent palette is often Arcadian, even tender—yellows, pinks, lavenders, light blues and greens—his paintings buoyant with a renewable energy that makes them, and him, a natural resource.
Poons continues to make paintings, to play his guitar, and to speed down roads at breakneck speed. His upcoming plans include competing in a number of races as well as some talks and his fall solo at Yares. An optimist, a maverick in the American grain, he never felt he had anything to lose, it seems, so he just went for it. He did it his way.
By Lilly Wei