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interior light: richard pousette-dart

by Michael Klein  

Opaque Harmony

Black Square

Path of the Hero

Now a Turning Orb
   Today the work of Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-1992) provides a unity of the spiritual and the pragmatic that is a model for younger artists concerned with sensation, wonder and visual mysticism. Presently on view at the Metropolitan Museum is the first survey of Richard Pousette-Dart's career since his death at the age of 76, an extremely intelligent introduction to a multi-talented painter, sculptor, printmaker and photographer. The last concentrated focus in New York on Pousette-Dart was in 1973, when the Whitney Museum mounted a small survey of works from the '60s and '70s. The Whitney organized a major retrospective in 1963 and in 1969 the Museum of Modern Art put together a traveling exhibition of his work.

At the Met, curator Lowery Sims has succinctly arranged a beautiful chronology of 33 works that weaves its way through Pousette-Dart's painting. Ultimately his aim was to delve into every possible aspect of his life journey, which in turn would be translated into his art. It was an investigation of the self envisioned and traced through the color and light of paint on canvas and paper.

Pousette-Dart did not think of himself as an abstractionist. Rather, his forms grew from his internal dialogue with the natural world. As shown by the notebooks and sketchbooks on view, and discussed at length in the catalogue, artist maintained a constant interest in the process of discovery, a state of consciousness that led to the sublime.

Historically, Pousette-Dart has been cast in the role of Exiled Abstract Expressionist. He retired early from the battles of the burgeoning New York School and the 8th Street Club and the famous Cedar Tavern. Pousette-Dart undertook a more solitary search for a pictorial language that was both symbolic and expressive of a world deeply scarred by Hitler's death camps and Stalin's purges. And of a society immersed in a new Cold War, a global struggle whose reliance on nuclear destruction went against everything that was human.

Though photographed along with Pollock, Rothko and de Kooning as a member of the infamous group of Irascibles, as Life Magazine dubbed the Abstract Expressionists in 1950, Pousette-Dart was uncomfortable in the milieu of openings and late-night fetes. The reigning temperament -- robust and free-wheeling -- was foreign to him. "I am an artist of the concealed power of the spirit," he said. "Not of the brute physical form."

Pousette-Dart was content to go it alone. A model of the independent spirit and thinker, his singular stance is both his strength and his weakness. It took him out of the network of criticism and museum exhibitions but left him to search for his true self within art. "A work of art for me is a window, a touchstone, or a doorway to every other human being," he said. "It is my contact and union with the universe."

Early works derive their character from a toughly drawn, thickly painted, sometimes chiseled grid or pattern in which color has been placed much like a piece of stained glass is fit into an iron molding They are portals, windows of abundant colored light like the great Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe. The Magnificent (1950-51) is an example of this kind of noble statement.

Having moved away from the city in 1951, Pousette-Dart and his family made upstate New York their home. There he developed a richly diverse body of work with the Ramapo Mountains as a backdrop. That particular landscape appears and reappears throughout Pousette-Dart's art, whether in the form of a long horizontal painting like Presence, Ramapo Horizon (1975) with its limited palette of black, white and gray or a subtle graphite work on paper such as Silent Streams (1978). Nature, in these refined works, could be recalled using no color pigment at all. Stunningly direct and fresh, robust, full of energy, these paintings create a landscape of mind and space with flecks of color and sparks of light, creating orbs and moons and suns which hover in a space of absolute silence and resolve.

Is Pousette-Dart an example of a late-20th-century Hudson River landscape painter or an American luminist? Not exactly. But he obviously was a painter as caught up in the awe and splendor of the landscape that opened up just outside his studio door, as it were. With his language of repeated brushwork and simple forms, Pousette-Dart generated a self-made cosmology, a system of renewal and spiritual awakening as demonstrated in the red, yellow and green forms of Hieroglyph of Light (1966-67).

In the '50s Pousette-Dart's work possessed an interior light, magisterial in its emanation. The Museum of Modern Art's commanding painting called Chavade (1951) is one of a number of all-white canvases that became synonymous with Pousette-Dart's vision. Here the white elements of paint radiate from between the pencil lines of a soft, irregular grid.

In the '60s the artist's work becomes more radiant, as in Sky Presence (Morning) (1962-63). And for the next 30 years or so Pousette-Dart combines both radiance and luminosity to create fields of visionary exaltation. Dance of the White Flame (1980) and The Square of Light (1978-80) exemplify this objective, seen through the shapes and forms of some ancient hieroglyphs. A more recent work, Now a Turning Orb (1987-90), seems intended as a vision of "the world tomorrow." Or is it a recreation of some vision of our past? An orb whose yellow edge vibrates with energy around concentric circles of browns and greens and blues is at the same time riding upon an infrastructure of some fantastically enormous mechanical landscape. In E. M. Forester's The Machine Stops, the world is viewed always from above, like here, from the interior of an air ship which waits and watches as the world revolves below it.

In Pousette-Dart's world there is no scale. There is no top or bottom. We view the infinitely small and we see that which is large to exist in size beyond our comprehension. The fraction is the same as the whole. "What Pousette-Dart sought," writes Stephen Polcari in the catalogue, "was a regeneration, a bringing forth of the ancient cosmogony of the birth and rebirth of the world that lies within."

Pousette-Dart's concluding success is his grace and his reverence towards humanity, a superb sense of integrity, mission and finally beauty. Cynics today might claim that such sentiments are useless, but Pousette-Dart would reply that these sentiments are the truth and here are my pictures to tell you so. Summer Sung Orange Down (1985-89) says it all. The title of this late painting suggests a perfect haiku of time, sound, color and space. It is a mosaic of the pulse of life encapsulated in the tiny shards of color perceived through a telescope aimed at the universe.

"Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-1992)" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum, Nov. 4,1 997-Feb. 22, 1998.

MICHAEL KLEIN is a New York dealer and curator.