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Drawing Out Larry Poons

"If only we could make paintings that look as good as the paint,” Larry Poons once said to me as he contemplated a bucket of unnameable hues loosely swirled together. He sounded wistful, but he fulfilled that ambition many times over during his long life as a painter—and has been recognized for that achievement. In 1970, at thirty-three, Poons was the youngest of the forty-three artists in “New York Painting and Sculpture,” the show organized by the legendary curator Henry Geldzahler to celebrate the centennial of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was represented by a group of dazzling expanses of glowing color punctuated by flickering dots and ovals. Poons’s friend Frank Stella, a year older, was another brash new voice in a selection that ranged from Edward Hopper to Andy Warhol, from Stuart Davis to Helen Frankenthaler, along with Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky, David Smith, Dan Flavin, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski—and many more luminaries.

Poons was already a known quantity. Before they appeared in Geldzahler’s landmark show, his luminous Dot paintings had established him as a precocious talent, beginning with his first solo exhibition in 1963—he was twenty-six—at Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery. He had exhibited with Leo Castelli as well. Clement Greenberg wanted to include him in “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” the survey he organized for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964, but Poons refused when he heard that no very large works were wanted. None of this seems remarkable today, when unfledged artists are routinely plucked from art-school thesis shows and offered their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. But artists of Poons’s generation were expected to have spent decades honing their abilities before claiming anyone’s attention, so his rapid rise to acclaim, while still in his twenties, is a significant indicator of the power of his work at the time.

Poons could have had a comfortable career continuing to make Dot paintings. But he became dissatisfied with their exacting process of preparatory grids and calculation of placements. “I used to go through all those preliminary sketches, scaling them, putting everything down, and then, eventually go into painting the color,” Poons said, looking back at his methods in the 1960s. “So, when I actually imagined I was painting, it was more of a tail-end of what I was working on, all my energy and feeling being right there.” He began to work directly, with the canvas on the floor, “skimming”—his word—thick paint into spontaneous compositions, notable for their crusty physicality. His noticing the clarity and complexity of the spatters kicked up by the skimming led to the Throw pictures of the 1970s, waterfalls of cascading, intermingling, unpredictable color that seemed to drag Monet’s late waterlilies, kicking and screaming, into the present. “I thought, ‘I could throw it and I could get all this drawing. All this complication,’” Poons said. In contrast to many of his peers, who often seemed to test how much they could leave out of a picture and still have something compelling to look at, Poons appears to have always found complication to be very desirable. “I try to get it all,” he once told an interviewer: “Dark, light. To put as much in my paintings as I possibly can. I’d like to do an overloaded painting. Not just a little overloaded, really overloaded.” In the 1970s, like many of his predecessors and colleagues who were dripping and spattering, pouring and staining, spraying and using squeegees and rollers, Poons defied convention by inventing an unprecedented way of applying paint, hurling it athletically at canvas tacked to the wall, working out of pure intuition, talent, and experience to react constantly to what was evolving before him. Why this resulted in seductive, beautifully modulated expanses and not catastrophe is ultimately inexplicable. Poons exercised considerable control by varying the density and amount of paint, the sequence and placement of hues, and the energy and angle of the throw, but it can also seem as if he made the rivulets of color arrive in expressive relationships through sheer will.

Poons has often said that he didn’t think he could draw—hence the plotting of the Dot pictures—and in the Throw paintings, he co-opted gravity to do his drawing for him. He soon began to challenge his collaborator, pulling the bottom of the canvas away from vertical and adding discrete elements to the surface in order to slow down and disrupt the flow of pigment. Works with shaped pieces and small bits of foam became known as the Particle paintings. The tension between their delicate color shifts and robust surfaces accentuated the drama of the “drawing” that resulted from the previous motion of the paint, adding to the vitality of these paintings. The surface inflections of the first paintings of this type were relatively regular, but later in the 1980s, Poons began to add thicker and more varied substances to his canvases before beginning to throw color. Complex expanses punctuated with bulges, staccato rows of crisp-edged shapes, spiky bits, thin wedges, fluffy things, and indescribable stuff threatened to turn into sculptural reliefs. As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, these mysterious, richly articulated paintings became increasingly audacious and unexpected. Some canvases suggested unreadable relief texts spelled out in oversize, elongated letters. Others were raucous and cartoonlike. Still others seemed like natural phenomena, created by ancient geologic forces. Color was sometimes applied with a brush. And then, in the early 2000s, Poons says, “I discovered I could draw.” He began painting exclusively with a brush, unreeling pulsing fields of brilliant, unnamable color. More than one viewer, when these arresting paintings were first shown, described them as Bonnard on acid.

Now an ambitious survey at Yares Art, “Larry Poons: The Outerlands,” traces the trajectory of Poons’s exploration of articulated surfaces and his rediscovery of the potency of (relatively) straightforward paint on canvas.1 The exhibition coincides with the publication, by Abbeville Press, of Poons, a hefty, copiously illustrated monograph with an introduction by Michael Fried and texts by David Anfam, David Ebony, Barbara Rose, and—full disclosure—this writer. The show, which fills both of Yares Art’s lavish spaces, is a stellar collection of tough-minded, unpredictable, often gorgeous paintings that celebrate the power of color and surface to capture and hold our attention at the same time that they provoke countless associations. The works on view could be described as the “really overloaded” paintings that Poons aspired to make half a century ago, so mutable that they can seem to have changed dramatically when we return to them after looking away. They demand scrutiny for an extended time in order for their color to come alive, and they insist that we pay close attention if we wish to appreciate their intricacies; yet even when we make the effort, they often leave us feeling that there is still more to be discovered. From a distance, they read as large expanses of a few modulated colors, while from a close view, we find infinite unexpected combinations of innumerable hues and a fantastic array of textures, surfaces, and applied elements. There’s a lot to look at. That the exhibition is not installed chronologically forces us to look harder, to try to discern relationships and sequences. And there are surprises all along the way.

Among the first works we encounter is the pulsating Peritheria (1993), flushing to cinnabar red, lower right, with pink, mauve, and egg-yolk yellow exploding at the top, and metallic blues, grays, and elusive tans seeming to coalesce from rivulets and spatters elsewhere. We begin to see collaged-on “drawing”—fractured musical notes, perhaps, and shattered messages—and then are seduced by the fantastic play of colors. Nearby, an earlier iteration is announced by the luminous Over the Hills (To the Poorhouse) (1982), at first viewing an aggressively textured, cool, silvery wall. With time, the painting becomes an opulent fabric of pale near-taupe and washed-out sky blue, further inflected by the depth of the paint. Licks of dull red declare themselves and then subside into the rough expanse. In both paintings, it’s impossible to decide whether we are seeing into an unenterable, limitless expanse, miles away, or getting lost in innumerable pictorial incidents on a flat surface directly in front of us.

That kind of multiple reading, combined with elastic scale, is typical of all the works on view. Sometimes, the collaged-on elements try to dominate, such as the sheets of shallow “egg-crates” and relief “drawing” in paintings from the mid-1990s; then the warm, tonally varied palette takes over, turning the egg-crates, at least momentarily, into transparent networks. At the other end of the spectrum are works such as an untitled painting from 1991, a roiling fabric of pale, complex, stony colors with a sweep of dense applications that almost become sculptural. At once like a natural rock formation and the grittier parts of a city, the painting triggers associations with geology, archaeological excavations, and urban upheaval. Related paintings with substantial accretions—balls, blocks, stutters of rectangles, and more—subsumed by floods of complex, delicately mingled hues punctuate the exhibition, sometimes blushing into warmth, other times remaining deceptively neutral, at least until we spend enough time to begin to see the myriad colors animating the expanse. Occasionally, as in the rowdy Chickamauga (1997), a painting becomes insistently confrontational, a bold crazy-quilt of crisp-edged zones of saturated color and exuberant patterns, both painted and made of repetitive “particles”; rather than seeing in, we stay on and in front of the surface of this riot of color, texture, and incident. It’s like listening to a particularly loud, deliberately dissonant, but compelling country-and-western band.

At first acquaintance, the more recent, voluptuous paintings in the exhibition, hand-painted with a brush, seem very unlike the dense, encrusted earlier works. Instead of intense physicality, they offer astonishing complexity of color, as varied and unpredictable as in the Throw paintings despite being achieved by completely different means. Even though they depend on dense accumulations of touches, these recent paintings can seem delicate, open, air-blown, sometimes reading as ephemeral as Monet’s evocations of the reflective surface of his lilypond. Vigorous, fluid brushwork can be contrasted with transparencies and washes. Yet the longer we look, the more seamless Poons’s evolution appears. A scribble of crackling red lines floating across an untitled work from 2021 begins to resonate with the relief frieze of narrow strips in works such as Peritheria (1993), which greeted us as we entered. If we really concentrate, we realize that the essential structure of Chickamauga (1997), all angles and triangles like an expedient patchwork quilt, underlies the deceptively lyrical Jimmy Martin (2004), with its flushes of rose and shimmering blue. And a series of lively works on paper made in 1996, installed near Chickamauga, as cursive and fluid as the canvas is angular and staccato, seems prescient of what is to come. We start noticing echoes of motifs, now more apparent, now less, throughout the exhibition, like fragments of repeated themes or harmonies in musical compositions; we remember that, his precocity as a painter notwithstanding, Poons was first a serious musician and has never stopped being involved with music and musicians. Yet even when we become attuned to these fleeting, hard-to-grasp near-repetitions, we remain struck by the individuality of each painting. There are family resemblances in groups of work and it’s obvious that a single, intense sensibility has generated them, but each painting is a fresh invention, clear evidence of Poons’s responsiveness to the character of his materials and his openness to the dictates of instinct, intuition, the accumulated experience of sixty years of intense painting, and sheer talent.

Art historians use the term “late style” to refer to the work of long-lived artists who, after decades, produce notably audacious, uninhibited work, often unlike anything else being made at the time, buoyed by the confidence generated by long practice and, it often seems, indifference to what anyone might think of their efforts. Not all long-lived artists achieve a late style. Some continue to make the work for which they are known, but others—Titian, Rembrandt, Monet, Matisse, and Poons’s friend Stella, for example—explore new territory in their advanced years. Poons turned eighty-five last fall. The works in the “The Outerlands” span four decades of his long, productive life, allowing us to follow his path from triumphant maturity to late style. The exhibition makes us hungry to see what comes next.

The most surprising and, in many ways, the most compelling work in the front gallery, it can be argued, is The Outerlands (2022), forty feet of lush, seductive coils, loops, sweeps, and swaths of radiant color. It’s a twenty-first-century response to High Baroque painting or perhaps to Tintoretto’s vast works in the Scuola di San Rocco. The Outerlands captures us with its oversize rhythms and keeps us absorbed with its smaller incidents of unexpected color relationships and “drawing” ranging from wristy squiggles to full-arm and full-body sweeps. It’s the kind of exhilarating experience that defies description. All that’s really needed is to point. The critic Clement Greenberg maintained that it was easier to discuss literature than painting or sculpture because the literary critic could include examples of the work he was analyzing, while the art critic could not; reproductions were obviously inadequate. The monumental size of The Outerlands is an important part of what the painting is about, but the powerful material presence of everything in the exhibition is equally significant to our experience.

“Larry Poons: The Outerlands” opened at Yares Art, New York, on February 25 and remains on view through April 15, 2023.

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