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Larry Poons: The Outerlands

In his landmark 1969 survey New York Painting and Sculpture 1940-1970, curator Henry Geldzahler devoted an entire gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Larry Poons, then 32, the youngest artist in the show. Poons had gained significant notoriety in his mid-twenties for abstract paintings of colorful hardedge dots and lozenge shapes pulsating against fields of contrasting hues. In subsequent years, he loosened his style and used pouring and staining techniques to create luminous, ethereal spaces on a grand scale, highly regarded as pioneering works of the Color Field movement. Geldzahler recognized in Poons’ monumental canvases a new direction for American art in which the young artist was aligned with Abstract Expressionist greats like Pollock and Rothko. The curator placed works by Poons in the final gallery of the sprawling exhibition, suggesting for artists and art audiences that he would lead painterly abstraction toward a vigorous and bright future.  

In some way, The Outerlands at Yares Art New York picks up where the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition left off, more than fifty years later. This museum-worthy show, organized by gallery director Nicolas Graille, contains thirty-one large canvases in acrylic and mixed media, and nine works on paper, spanning the early eighties up to this year. Coinciding with the publication of the first-ever comprehensive career monograph on the artist, Poons, published by Abbeville Press (to which I contributed an essay), the exhibition traces Poons’s evolution beyond hard-edge abstraction, Ab Ex and Color Field. Today, he is more often inspired by Titian, Velázquez, and Cézanne, and has arrived at a rigorously abstract, idiosyncratic visual language with unique attributes.  

A tall, vertical, untitled canvas from 1981 (81G, nearly 80 by 44 inches), is a vibrant representative of the Throw paintings that Poons produced throughout much of the seventies, and into the eighties. Here, narrow orange, pink and white rivulets of color cascade downward from the top of the canvas to the lower edge. Using nature’s power tools of gravity and chance, Poons conveys a hypnotic sensation of vertical movement, allowing the eye few respites. A senior champion motorcycle racer, Poons always imparts a sense of motion in his work—sometimes frantic, and a rather leisurely pace in other compositions. 

In the mid-eighties, he began to attach bits of foam rubber strips, hemispheres, paper rolls, and other shapes onto the raw canvas before painting, initially in an effort to slow down the vertical cascades of pigment. In Log Train (1985), for instance, the dense impasto surface with earthy gray tones recalls the rugged texture of a jagged stone wall. Later, the underlying bits of foam served as a kind of relief drawing, with nuances of light and shadow activating the surface. Some of the underlying pieces of foam in the sumptuous Peritheria (1993) resemble quarter notes and half notes on a music staff, a reminder of Poons’s early ambitions as a musician. Chat Noir (1994) features raised oval shapes and an irregular pyramid defined by underlying pieces of foam, submerged beneath an allover field of dark blues and purples. As a tongue-in-cheek reference to his early Dots paintings, Poons has punctuated the composition with a crisscrossing network of small, colorful round and oval shapes that appear to skitter across the surface.  

Representative of his most recent works, including those painted during the pandemic in isolation in his upstate New York studio, The Outerlands (2022), the show’s title piece, is one of the largest Poons has ever done. A sweeping, panoramic composition spanning more than forty feet across and nearly six feet high, the painting features undulating passages of color that shift from opalescent clouds of grays and red-orange to jazzy blues, and a blazing yellow field on the far right, all in clusters of sensuous, finger-width gestural markings made mostly with his hands.  

In a varied professional career that has had significant highs and lows, Poons’s passion and commitment to art was and is unwavering, as evidenced by the works in this show. A statement he made to well-wishers at the exhibition’s opening is telling: “If people are happy with what has been seen, or heard or read, it’s not a victory for the person whose name might be on the book or the paintings, but it’s a real victory for art.” Following Poons through his painterly odyssey that unfolds in this exhibition, it is clear that his youthful promise has been fulfilled—but not in a way that anyone expected.  


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