When Larry Poons left high school in 1955 his ambition was to become a composer. Despite his art teacher telling him he could “do something in art,” he was convinced that he couldn’t draw and decided to attend the New England Conservatory of Music. It was while he was there that he began to take his painting more seriously, and he enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He had his first New York exhibit at the Green Gallery in 1963 and has enjoyed widespread artistic and critical respect ever since. He first came to attention with a series of vividly colored pictures that he now refers to as “dot paintings,”
and then – as his art was drawn further into the discourse being developed by Clement Greenberg and other formalist writers – he made a sequence of radical “throw paintings” in which the physical substance of paint, and its natural properties of running, dripping, and congealing, seemed to be the art’s content.
More recently however, Mr Poons has arrived at a more complex style, at once richer and more playful. As these paintings have evolved they have gradually given full rein to both his natural gift for color and his ability to juggle tantalizing references to the history of art and to the appearances of the world. His latest show is at Danese through March 14, and it is one of the best shows in the city.
This week I spoke with him at the downtown loft that he shares with his wife the artist Paula DeLuccia, and found him a most entertaining conversationalist: thoughtful, erudite, occasionally outspoken and constantly quotable, his talk is littered with references to painting, music, and literature, and its perennial subject is the nature of artistic creation.
Larry, it seems to me that you’re an artist who’s got better as he’s grown older.
Well, I’ve got different. But then there are things that are the same: even before the dot pictures, when I used to work as a messenger down on Wall Street, I just used to love watching the constant movement. There’s something exciting about seeing these multitudes of people criss-crossing. The movement attracted me, and that’s always been with me, that excitement in multiplicity.
You mention the dot paintings. At the time they were identified with certain sorts of geometrical painting. Didn’t you used to use a grid system to draw them?
Well, I didn’t trust myself to do it freehand. I’ve always been more or less convinced that I couldn’t draw. People could always draw much better than I could. But what I finished up with in those pictures was as realistic or as freewheeling or as open as any other kind of drawing.
I wouldn’t have liked them if they’d looked geometric. Even though at that point the only thing other than Mondrian that influenced me – or struck a strong chord with me – was Barnett Newman. They were the two major painting influences that I had. In the late fifties I didn’t even know what a Cézanne looked like. I didn’t know what a Pollock looked like. I didn’t know anything like that.
But did you mean to say that the dot pictures and your current paintings are concerned the same sort of thing?
When I think back, the dots used to blip around, they never stood still. If you looked at a dot picture and then turned away, your eyes got rested, so when you came back to it, it was an entirely different color until your eyes got saturated again. It changed. And some of these new paintings have that. They move around. They change visually. And I’m not talking about just a little thing, it’s the whole thing.
When I’m working on them sometimes I’ll put some color on and I walk away and I turn around, and I can’t even see it. It’s disappeared. When that happens I’m always quite happy because then I know that the painting is in a place where it’s on its own. It’s natural. And I am just a conduit between the paint and the canvas.
But aren’t you making decisions? And aren’t your decisions important?
Paintings are mistakes. You put a mark on a canvas, and it’s a mistake. Of course it’s a mistake, otherwise it would be wonderful, because it would be finished. But it’s not. After maybe 50 or 60,000 mistakes, you give up. Like Leonardo said, “Works of art aren’t finished, they’re abandoned.” That’s absolutely true, art is never finished. People say, “Oh, that’s a nice romantic thing to say.” But it’s not romantic. It’s like saying that physics can be finished. Real art is never finished. With applied art at least you can say, “OK. You’ve learnt this lesson.” Illustration doesn’t even get into this no-man’s land. But that’s the only place that art lives, if it’s any good.
Can you explain that a little further?
It’s hard to explain. It’s the difference between William Butler Yeats and everybody else! You don’t know why, but holy mackerel, it’s there! You sense it. Very quickly you reach a wall of impenetrability. It’s like you’re reading words and there’s nothing there. You can’t penetrate it. And then you do – not all at once, but maybe in a week, or a year, or ten years, and when you do, when it finally pours over you, it’s just like anything else in art that you are really moved by. When stuff resonates with you, then you’ve got a Bach or a Schuman or a Brahms. You’ve got one of them.
OK, but you’re referring to poetry and music. How does this work in painting?
When you’re painting, then you’ve got nothing to paint until there’s something there, that first mistake. But once you see something – you’ll see a flow or a shape – then that’s what you’re painting, and that’s where paintings come from. And you just try to make them real. And they’re real when they look like they’ve been done all at once. When something happens so that everything that I’ve been looking at in the painting becomes something else very different. All of a sudden little things are visible, things that were invisible before, and the painting doesn’t look like it has a beginning or an end. Where did Cézanne begin a painting? Where did Titian start? You can’t tell. You just don’t see it. But in paintings that don’t arrive at this “colored moment,” you can always tell.
Yes. But if art is never finished, how can we tell whether it’s any good or not?
The art that we’re talking about is never finished. It can’t be. It isn’t in its nature. When things are finished isn’t a willful thing. Is a Mondrian finished? No. But is a [Fritz] Glarner? Yeah. That’s why a Mondrian’s better. And Mondrian or Glarner, they have no control over this. Beethoven had no control over being that good. Impossible. It wasn’t his fault he was that good. And it wasn’t Pollock’s fault that he was that wonderful. So if somebody says, “Oh, that’s good!” you can’t get a swelled head because you know that if perchance it is any good, that’s almost the way it is – it’s by chance!
Almost every time I come back to one of these new pictures, I almost don’t remember it. It looks different every time. I don’t understand it. We’ll, I do understand it because I see it, and seeing is understanding when we’re talking about painting. There’s no gap between seeing and understanding.
Not everyone believes that, though. A lot of people think that words are very important to understanding painting. Clement Greenberg, for one.
Clem was full of shit. And why? Because Clem wasn’t a painter, that’s all. Clem tried all kinds of writing. Clem wanted to be a playwright, or a poet, or a novelist, or a short story writer. But he was a writer in search of a subject. He realized that his gift was in language, but he didn’t have a subject that would utilize it without it being all phoneyed up with plots and stuff, which obviously was not his thing. So art became his subject, and then he could write. And it’s his writing that matters – whether he says black is blue or blue is black, it doesn’t matter. It’s how he puts it all together that makes it such a great read! And that’s Greenberg. If it hadn’t have been for his writing then he would have just been somebody else who liked Pollock, and there were a lot of people who liked Pollock. My God, even Pollock’s wife knew he was terrific!
You’re saying that seeing and understanding are the same thing when it comes to painting. On the other hand you say that you couldn’t draw. But isn’t the ability to see basic to the ability to draw?
When I was at the Museum School, I couldn’t draw. I tried. But I found a way – or it found me, I suppose – where if I didn’t look at the paper, and didn’t look at what my hand was doing, and just looked at what I was drawing, I could do it much better than I’d ever done before.
I think it was the same with Pollock too. He felt he couldn’t draw, and he couldn’t in the way that he felt he should. It wasn’t until he realized that it’s not about color being pushed into something, it’s about color falling into something. Of course the only tool a painter has – or ever had – to make paintings is color. It’s all color. There is no drawing in painting, just like Cézanne said. What you think is drawing is just two colors coming together, and if the colors aren’t harmonious (to use Cézanne’s word) then neither is the drawing, and it’s a bad painting.
You keep coming back to Cézanne. In his essay for the catalog of your new show, Robert Pincus-Witten relates your paintings to landscape. Do you see them as landscape paintings?
I don’t see them as any kind of paintings, but I do see landscape in them. I might think, “This looks like a mountain,” and I like that. Or something might look like an arm, or a figure, and I love it when it gets like that. It’s not that I put them there, but that’s what color does. Color is light, and that’s all that paintings are about: light. Painting is color. Color is light. The light that’s generated by your favorite painting, that’s what you’re responding to.