From the Cocoon: Larry Poons at Loretta Howard
Larry Poons—Radical Surface: 1985—1989 at Loretta Howard Gallery
November 4 – December 23, 2019
525-531 West 26th Street
New York City, (212) 695-0164
In much the way that a string of matched pearls is worth far more than each singularly perfect specimen, separately evaluated, a fine exhibition can be like the exposition of a jeweller’s craft. The analogy holds for Loretta Howard’s display of seven large paintings by Poons from the later 1980s. A near harmony of pale hue–panoplies of mingled blues, grays, purples, pinks, mint greens, olive greens and various shades of cream – forcibly suggests a snowy mountainside, glistening with a million points of lights in the sun, or the opalescence of a tropical underwater vista.
But these paintings are not all alike. Surfaces are all uneven, but in different ways. All have acrylic paint and gel poured or sloshed over accretions, but there are different levels of encrustation. The elements beneath are most prominent in The Cry Room (1990), where one can see segments of small balls (maybe tennis balls) and rows of still smaller balls (maybe matting of some sort) underneath pale greens, whites, and pinks. Far better integrated is Southern Exposure (1986), where the crumpled bits of paper and sponge-like areas in greens, whites and gold create a cotton candy ambience of a fairy-tale kingdom. Particularly wonderful is Brahms in Rio (1988), predominantly cream and pale olive green, with areas of mint across the top, and a narrative of underlying elements – crumpled paper on the left, flat narrow tubes of paper in the bottom center, sponge-like elements in the top right center, and so on.
Poons did not arrive immediately at this technique. In the ‘60s, he was the infant terrible of op, with his brilliantly colored “coin-dots,” but even then, like all great artists, he was not satisfied with success. His coin-dots became larger and larger ovals, ; next, they melted into loose forms made by paint poured onto a horizontal canvas, then pushed around with a broom. This homage to Pollock ended one day, when Clement Greenberg was visiting Poons’s studio, and complimented him on the way that some paint had splashed off the canvas onto an adjoining space. Pondering this insight, Poons began to set his canvases upright, and concentrate on the splash itself, pouring the paint so that it coursed down the entire canvas and formed a variegated display of color like frozen waterfalls or lava. After pursuing this technique throughout the 1970s, he evolved to the style seen in the present show around 1980.
The paintings at Loretta Howard were made in an old barn in upstate New York. They started out as an environment, with a long swathe of canvas wrapped around so as to form an enormous cocoon or grotto, within which the artist worked by electric light. An intricate series of sketches (some of which are on view ) laid out the general lines of the composition. On top of this composition were then fastened the various accretions, and next, the paint was sloshed on. Finally, individual pictures were cut out of the cocoon, squares and rectangles which then had to be stretched and framed and exhibited as separate works.
The light in the cocoon was fitful and dim, but Poons liked it that way. It reminded him of the candlelight by which he believed Rembrandt and Velazquez must sometimes have painted, and enabled him to capture some of their feeling for lights and shadows. The cocoon was also reminiscent of the carefully-designed interiors in which Mondrian used to work, but, like Mondrian, Poons saw himself as essentially an easel painter, as opposed to an environmentalist. It is curious, but true, that the idiom he developed combined the abstractness and classical poise of Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism with the baroque flair and compositional openness of the seventeenth-century’s Old Masters.