Richard Pousette-Dart Life and Art Periods

SYNOPSIS

The painter Richard Pousette-Dart was the youngest member of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. His early work, marked by thick black contour lines and primitive themes, gave way to a freer abstract style in the 1940s, and to light-infused, pointillist paintings in the 1950s and 1960s. Although initially associated with the classic Abstract Expressionist angst, his work maintained a more transcendent and positive quality to it, increasingly focused on the expression of spiritual ideals in paint and color.

KEY IDEAS

Pousette-Dart's paintings are imbued with a sense of the spiritual and the mythic, evoking primordial forms and scenes.
The artist's experiments with abstraction began with abstracted animal shapes, but soon evolved into formal explorations of textural handling, built-up surfaces, and intense color.
Despite being present for the iconic Irascibles photo by Nina Leen in Life magazine, Pousette-Dart was one of the more independent artists within Abstract Expressionism, leaving New York City at the height of the movement and pursuing an optimistic, life-affirming art style to the end.
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RICHARD POUSETTE-DART BIOGRAPHY

Childhood

Richard Pousette-Dart was born on June 8, 1916 to educated, artistically-inclined parents in St. Paul, Minnesota. The family soon moved to Valhalla, New York, where Pousette-Dart spent most of his childhood. His father, Nathaniel Pousette, was an artist, collector, and writer, and his mother, Flora Dart, a musician, pianist, and poet. His early interests in art and music were strongly encouraged by his parents.

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Early Training

Before turning to painting, Pousette-Dart worked with bronze sculpture, and his earliest works are in that medium. He spent a year at Bard College in the 1930s before moving to New York City, where he worked with the sculptor Paul Manship as an assistant. In Manhattan, his ideas about art were influenced by visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History. He was particularly impressed by the Byzantine period and the work of Vincent van Gogh. In addition, an early job as a secretary in a photography studio, where he completed color retouchings, is often cited as an influence on the dotted, pointillist style he developed later in his paintings.

Mature Period

Pousette-Dart's paintings in the late 1930s and early 1940s share in the primitive, mythic quality evoked in the early work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and other New York painters. Pousette-Dart mined a variety of sources, from Eastern philosophy and Jungian psychology to the totemic forms of Oceanic and Native Art, to develop these themes. The resulting paintings feature birds, bull heads, egg shapes, and other animal forms, often rimmed with the artist's distinctive black contour line, and suggesting sacrifice, ancient rite, or primitive spirituality. Like many of his Abstract Expressionist peers, his early work shows a great debt to Pablo Picasso, with its animal imagery and its tension between recognizable forms and abstracted motifs.

Between 1941 and 1942, Pousette-Dart painted what many consider to be the first grand-scale work in Abstract Expressionism, Symphony No.1, The Transcendental. Several of his large-scale works from this period have a dark tenor, as in Crucifixion, Comprehension of the Atom (1944), where he grapples with the themes of nuclear war and human suffering. Extremely attuned to formal issues, Pousette-Dart developed his pantheon of animal forms into an extensive array of squiggles, triangles, ovaloids, and cell-like shapes, a vocabulary that would come to characterize his organic, gestural dynamism for years to come. During this generative period in New York, Pousette-Dart showed at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery and at the Betty Parsons Gallery.

Pousette-Dart's work became increasingly painterly in the 1940s and 1950s, assuming a rougher, heavier mark. In 1951, despite his growing success and the newly recognized cache of the New York art scene, Pousette-Dart left Manhattan with his wife Evelyn Gracey for Sloatsburg and then Suffern, both in Rockland County, New York. In his studio upstate, he continued on his artistic journey, producing work that was increasingly spiritual in nature. Many of the abstracted figural motifs began to give way to designs in pure color, texture, and form. His brightly colored works from the period have been likened to mosaics and stained-glass windows, with their vertical streams of jewel-like color. In the 1960s, Pousette-Dart turned increasingly to a pointillist approach, layering dabs or dots of paint over one another to create spreading, pulsing fields of color.

Late Years and Death

Richard Pousette-Dart Biography

Pousette-Dart painted into his seventies, utilizing and modifying approaches from his stylistic arsenal of pointillism, geometry, gesture, and inscribed text. In his journal writings, Pousette-Dart attached particular thematic meanings to the 'square of matter' and the 'circle of spirit,' notions that become especially apparent in his work of the 1980s and 1990s. Here, the angst and dynamism of some of his earlier work has settled into a more static harmony, with circles, ovals, and meanders arranged as balanced meditations on matter, spirit, and universal form. Pousette-Dart died in Suffern, NY, at the age of 76. s

LEGACY

While famous in his day, Pousette-Darts legacy has faded more than that of some of his Abstract Expressionist peers. This is explained in part by the independent quality of his work, being neither 'expressionist' nor fully 'abstract,' it tends to be left out of canonical accounts of the New York School. Pousette-Dart also lacked the notoriety and brooding mien of other contemporaries. He was a vegetarian and spiritualist who avoided alcohol and depression, and thus does not fit the stereotype of the suffering New York painter that others embodied.

There is no doubt, however, that his work influenced other developing artists of his day, especially in his abstraction of primitive scenes and the figures and the color-centric approach of his pointillist works. In recent years, Pousette-Dart's posthumous reputation has grown, with retrospectives at The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Pousette-Dart's daughter, Joanna Pousette-Dart, and a grandson, Chris Pousette-Dart, are both contemporary abstract artists.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
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RICHARD POUSETTE-DART QUOTES

"I strive to express the spiritual nature of the Universe. Painting for me is a dynamic balance and wholeness of life; it is mysterious and transcending, yet solid and real."

Richard Pousette-Dart

Richard Pousette-Dart Influences

Interactive chart with Richard Pousette-Dart's main influencers, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.

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Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky
Arshile Gorky was an Armenian-born American painter and a major influence on the development of Abstract Expressionism. In his own art he fused elements of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, and was close with key figures central to New York's burgeoning abstrct art scene, such as John Graham, Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arshile Gorky
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb
Adolph Gottlieb was an Abstract Expressionist painter who commonly used grids, pictographs, and primitive symbols in his work.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Adolph Gottlieb
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Joan Miró
John Graham
John Graham
John Graham was a Russian-born American painter and a key figure in the development of Abstract Expressionism. Never adopting a singular style in his own art, Graham tutored many young abstract artists on the tenets of Cubism and Surrealism, of which he was an expert. Willem de Kooning credited Graham as the person who discovered Jackson Pollock.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information John Graham
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who in the early twentieth century founded the psychoanalytic school of psychology. His theories on the human unconscious, arhcetypal forms and free association were very influential on many forms of modern art, including Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

Modern Art Information Sigmund Freud
Carl Jung
Carl Jung
Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of analytical psychology. Jung studied the human psyche through an exploration of dreams, religion, mythology and art. Jung's extensive work and interest in the human unconscious was a major influence on some of the Abstract Expressionists.

Modern Art Information Carl Jung
Primitive Art
Primitive Art
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive' or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.

Modern Art Information Primitive Art
African Art
African Art
Beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, traditional African art, often seen through a primitivizing eye, began to exert a strong influence on modern Western artists. Artists were influenced by the emphasis on ritual and spiritualism, and the stylistic conventions of flattened planes and mask-like faces.

Modern Art Information African Art
Byzantine Art
Byzantine Art
Byzantine Art is a broad category that covers work made within the Byzantine Empire, from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. Mosaics, icons, and panel paintings frequently include hieratic depictions of Christian figures and symbols, and make use of a flattened, elongated style.

Modern Art Information Byzantine Art
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Cubism
Surrealism
Surrealism
Perhaps the most influential avant-garde movement of the century, Surrealism was founded in Paris in 1924 by a small group of writers and artists who sought to channel the unconscious as a means to unlock the power of the imagination. Much influenced by Freud, they believed that the conscious mind repressed the power of the imagination. Influenced also by Marx, they hoped that the psyche had the power to reveal the contradictions in the everyday world and spur on revolution.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Surrealism
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jackson Pollock
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still was a leading first-generation Abstract Expressionist. His mature works are large-scale paintings with gaping chasms and stains of jagged color, often in dark earth tones.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clyfford Still
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko was an Abstract Expressionist painter whose early interest in mythic landscapes gave way to mature works featuring large, hovering blocks of color on colored grounds.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Mark Rothko
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Color Field Painting
Paul Manship
Paul Manship
Paul Manship had been inspired by classical art as early as the 1910s, but he had his greatest successes as a purveyor of Art Deco elegance. He is well-known for his 1934 work Prometheus.

Modern Art Information Paul Manship
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter, commonly associated with the Post-Impressionist period. As one of the most prolific and experimental artists of his time, van Gogh was a spontaneous painter and a master of color and perspective. Troubled by personal demons all his life, many historians speculate that van Gogh suffered from a Bipolar disorder.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Vincent van Gogh
Animal Head
Animal Head

Title: Animal Head (c. 1936-8)

Artwork Description & Analysis: This work, an abstracted study of an animal head, shows Pousette-Dart's interest in tribal and Jungian themes of confrontation and sacrifice. These themes are the main focus of his work in the 1930s and early 40s. The oval shape is repeated and modified to suggest eye, horn, egg, yolk, and fetus, all surrounded by his characteristic black contour line.


Oil on canvas - Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, NY

Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental
Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental

Title: Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental (1941-2)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental is a large painting, considered by many to be the first mural-scale work of Abstract Expressionism. Evoking at once musical notes, cell-like squiggles, and the orbits of a planetary system, the work suggests the universal forms that inhere in the world at large. While the spiritual theme and many of the shapes are familiar from his 1930s work, Pousette-Dart's style has become more painterly and textured.


Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Chavade
Chavade

Title: Chavade (1951)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Pousette-Dart created a number of works in the early 1950s like this one, using pencil and white paint on canvas or board. Originally prompted by a tight budget, the approach shows Pousette-Dart exploring an ethereal side to the abstract grids of Picasso and his New York School heirs. One can discern the characteristic ovals, eye-shapes, and arcs, but rendered in a softer and more --- manner.


Oil and pencil on canvas - Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

Illumination Gothic
Illumination Gothic

Title: Illumination Gothic (1958)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Pousette-Dart developed his pantheon of diamonds, circles, and organic shapes into vertical compositions in the 1950s and 60s. The thickly layered forms in this work suggest an underwater seabed, a stained glass window, or the streaming refractions of filtered light. Where in earlier paintings there are still some distinct, quasi-representational forms, the elements here are abstract and fluid, diffused across the colored ground.


Oil on linen - Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart

Golden Presence
Golden Presence

Title: Golden Presence (1961)

Artwork Description & Analysis: With its allover style of colored dots, Golden Presence exemplifies Pousette-Dart's pointillist approach. Up close, one can see the highly textured surface daubs and marks. From far away, the densely layered surface suggests a landscape, garden, or other spatial presence. Pousette-Dart here evokes the spiritual element not through suggestive subject matter but through color, texture, and the veil-like, shimmering surface of the work.


Oil on linen - Valerie Carberry Gallery, Chicago IL

Now a Turning Orb
Now a Turning Orb

Title: Now a Turning Orb (1987-90)

Artwork Description & Analysis: In Now a Turning Orb, Pousette-Dart employs familiar forms from his career, like nested circles, pointillist dots, and curved arcs and lines. Here, as in many of his late works, Pousette-Dart balances a sense of structure and harmony (in the even weave of the gridded forms and the central circle) with dynamism and energy (in the vibrating brushstrokes and the sense of whirring motion).


Acrylic on linen - Private collection, Munich

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.