From minimalism to the embrace of chaos: Larry Poons
In the 1970s, Larry Poons turned his back on fame and critical approval to produce a new style of art in rural isolation. As a monumental work from this period comes to auction, specialist Noah Davis reflects on the artist’s independent spirit
One of the fascinating highlights of the 2018 documentary The Price of Everything is the glimpse it provides of artist Larry Poons at work. His studio, a barn in some far-flung corner of upstate New York, is lined with canvas as if with wallpaper. Every surface — not just the enormous work in progress, but the floor, the rafters, the benchtops — is encrusted with paint.
Poons himself, now 83 years old, looks wry, wise, wizened and world-weary. He knows every inch of this space like a hermit knows his cave. He mixes the acrylic pigment with his fingertip, toys with it and splashes it. As he works, an old-fashioned cassette deck plays grand symphonies by Beethoven or Anton Webern.
This has been Poons’s practice since the 1970s: a solitary, almost monastic way of making art. And now a piece from early on in his self-imposed exile is being offered at Christie’s, in the First Open Online sale. It is a section of one of those enveloping, wraparound wall-hangings from the artist’s windowless barn.
‘Untitled PII is a large-scale piece by any measure, it has great provenance, and it is in really pristine condition,’ says Noah Davis, a Christie’s specialist in Post-War and Contemporary Art.
‘The work dates from soon after Poons made his famous (you could say infamous) transition away from the minimal and detached style of painting that made his name in the 1960s.’
Those early works often consisted of painted dots or jelly beans in one or two colours, arranged in regular patterns against a contrasting monochrome background. Looking at them alongside Untitled PII, or indeed anything that Poons has done in the past half-century, it is hard to credit that they are the work of the same hand.
‘He started going in the polar opposite direction in terms of the amount of paint he was using, the lack of control, the chaos that he introduced into the process,’ says Davis. ‘Instead of creating perfectly formed paintings with very defined edges, he turned to pouring paint, completely eschewing the traditional process with a brush.’
In Untitled PII, the effect is powerfully monumental — and not just because the canvas is as wide as a four-poster bed. The act of extracting one huge rectangle from an even larger canvas lends the painting an air of grandeur, as if it were a stanza from an epic poem, or a page torn from some countercultural text such as Kerouac’s On the Road, which was famously typed on a single scroll of paper.
‘He was celebrated for his minimalist style of painting. Once he turned towards this freer style, he was shunned by lots of the people who had collected him’ — specialist Noah Davis
‘All Poons’s work from the 1970s onwards is a continuum,’ says Davis. ‘Every painting is part of this ongoing performance that he is producing in isolation.’
As for the content of the painting, Untitled PII has a mien of heft and permanence that is almost geological. The slightly muddled rivers of paint are like strata in rock, or the rings in an ancient tree trunk that has been cleft from crown to root.
Or rather from root to crown. ‘It was painted the other way up,’ says Davis. ‘The giant eddy of paint at the upper edge gives it away. At some point in the drying process, Poons flipped it over and part of the painting flopped back onto itself.
‘So a lot of what Poons is doing on that weird, dense surface is gravitational. You don’t realise it until you get close, but the simple act of turning it upside down can have a big effect.’
The great question about Poons’s oeuvre is: what made him change direction so radically? Because it certainly did his career no good at the time.
‘He was celebrated and renowned for his minimalist style of painting,’ says Davis, ‘and once he made the turn towards this freer style, he was shunned by lots of the people who had collected him previously.
‘His departure from a cold, detached style coincides with the hippy revolution and the upheaval of Vietnam. But there is more to it than that. Larry Poons believes deeply in individual freedom. He is a great aficionado of motorcycles: they seem to stand for his independence, a way of living that is muscular and individual.’
‘I wanted to be Beethoven,’ says Poons in The Price of Everything. ‘To grow, move on, excel’
There is another clue to what makes Larry Poons tick, to his creative urge, and it sits right there in his barn. It is the cassette player in the corner, blaring out the 19th-century classics. Before he became an artist, Poons studied composition at the New England Conservatory.
‘I wanted to be Beethoven,’ he remarks in The Price of Everything. ‘To grow, move on, excel.’ He also says of Mozart: ‘The first piece ain’t looking like the last piece.’
So for Poons, visual art, like musical composition (and, come to that, motorbike riding), is an attempt to reach some other place. It’s an act of exploring. And abstraction is the perfect vehicle, because — like a symphony or a piano concerto — an abstract painting isn’t ‘about’ anything. It will have rhythm and texture and pace, but it is sufficient unto itself. Its function, if it has one, is to convey what cannot be expressed in words or by any other means.
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That is why Poons’s pour paintings — works such as Untitled PII — are as important as his controlled early pieces, and it’s also why Poons himself doesn’t say much.
He is deaf to the clamour of the art world. He doesn’t care what the critics and the watchers think. He paints because he doesn’t know how not to, because he couldn’t stop if he tried. That may not be the only way to be an artist. But it is, by any measure, pretty admirable.