Larry Poons’ radical surface

[slideshow_deploy id=’31673′]

Even the floor of Larry Poons’ Manhattan loft studio is thick with art. Thirty years of flinging paint onto canvases has congealed to leave a brightly textured husk that covers every surface. “The whole room’s a painting”, says Poons. “I ought to cut it up and sell it”. Poons, in his seventies, reaches down and picks up a slab of his art, “You see, I started painting on the floor and then when I saw a painting appear in the middle of it all I cut it out.”

Spontaneity, intuition and innate gift define Poons’ work. They are also the qualities he most admires in the works of others, from painters, country musicians and sportsmen to writers. Now teaching at the Art Students League in New York, Poons has the opportunity to witness the emergence of these qualities in a new generation of artists. “There’s some of them’, he says, “who have the talent, like perfect pitch, they have it and they just need time to develop. I can’t teach them anything. They’ll find out what to do. Others, you know, they’re good, they can learn, they can improve but their thinking and their ideas about what the next big thing is, gets in between them and the painting.”

When he was a student himself, Poons’ first ambition was to be a musician. “I got into the New England Conservatory of Music in 1955 singing a country song – a country song! I wanted to be a real composer. I was there for two years, studying music from the ground up but I got to a point where I thought I could learn music in an applied way, I could be a teacher. But, it wasn’t natural, it wasn’t just there. For Beethoven it was there, it was simple, he had it. I didn’t have the stuff, it wasn’t second nature to me, I ran into a wall, so I started art classes.”

Art provided a channel for Poons’ impulsive nature. “I had a great teacher. She let me do what I wanted to do, she told me she thought I could do something if I went into art, so I did.” Poons sold his first painting at high school to Frank Coppola’s mother. In 1958 he moved to New York City where, facing pressure from his father who ran an import and export business, Poons was helped and encouraged by the Abstract Expressionist painter Barnett Newman.

“With a few friends I got it together and opened a coffee shop – we hosted poetry readings, painting exhibitions, we made a circle.” That circle attracted a formidable artistic crowd including many of the Beat poets, and Poons remembers Jack Kerouac regularly calling in around closing time. Following the success of his first show in the early sixties, Poons came into contact with some of the best progressive painters working in New York at that time; Ad Reinhardt, Ray Johnson, Ken Noland, Jules Olitski and Frank Stella, as well as modernist critic Clement Greenberg.

“I’d been working on graph paper for years, mapping shapes, making progressions, I didn’t trust myself. I couldn’t draw, so I made rules. I’d take a canvas and grid it off and map points onto it and paint in the shapes with complementary colours. But I wasn’t happy with it. One time I remember someone told me, ‘Larry, keep it simple’, so I thought, well if I made this simpler, I’d just paint the points.” It was this that gave rise to Poons’ famous early dot style. Large, lateral canvases dyed with primary or pastel hues, mapped out with coordinated points in grid formations. Often elliptical, these points create patterns and diagrams full of direction and impulse.

That was the 1960s but next, in a daring series of moves, rejecting the very style that had brought him so much attention, Poons moved on. He created new formats, new qualities and new procedures, eventually leading him to work such as his Radical Surface paintings in the eighties; sculpture-like paintings inundated with paint-soaked sponges, plastic balls, rods and crumpled sheets.

Today, Poons’ work brings names like Constable and Cézanne to mind. His recent canvasses are majestic; bursting with magenta, gold, royal blue, verdigris, carmine, lush green, lemon and ultramarine. “What I’ve realised”, Poons explains, “is that colour is the only element in painting. It’s the only element there’s ever been. Cezanne said, ‘there is no drawing in painting’, it’s just two colours coming together.”

At times in Poons’ work the colours seem to liquefy and change with the light. “There have been times when I’ve been painting and I’ve put a mark down, a colour, something prominent, and then later when I’ve come back it’s disappeared! People say that about my paintings, they change, they surprise you, they’re in movement. Painting … it’s instant, the painting happens like lightning and you don’t know what’s going on and suddenly it’s there, before you even realised what happened.”

Poons is never happy with reproductions of his work. “Reproductions are basically about as full and interesting as Beethoven is when I walk down the street and whistle one of his symphonies. That’s what remains accessible to people, it’s the immediacy. Too often we’re taught to take a second look, to over-analyse things, to spend too much time being careful. But I’m interested in the immediacy of art, the way it gets you, the way it reaches out and gets you at the speed of light.”

When asked about inspiration, he explains, “The first time I was really inspired (whatever that means!) – but the first time I was inspired was when I got into country music, when I started loving Hank Snow, playing the guitar, singing and getting moved by poetry.” There is certainly a lyricism, a musicality to Poons’ work. I point to a painting entitled Brahms in Rio. “He was a genius’, notes Poons. “Brahms, Beethoven, Wagner, they were all geniuses. It’s just something that enthralls you. You don’t even know why Brahms was so good, you can’t explain it, it’s just there, in your ears”. And Poons’ paintings are very much like that too. I think to myself, it’s just there, in your eyes.

by John Cooper

From the Glass Archive – Issue Six