American Draftsman, Painter, and Sculptor
St. Paul, Minnesota
Suffern, New York
Summary of Richard Pousette-Dart
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.
- 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.
Progression of Art
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 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 - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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 - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
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
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
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
Biography of Richard Pousette-Dart
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.
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.
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
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.
The Legacy of Richard Pousette-Dart
While famous in his day, Pousette-Dart's 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.