Pace Live

A Conversation on Richard Pousette-Dart

Recorded on December 15, 2020

Presented on the occasion of Richard Pousette-Dart's exhibition in Palo Alto, this online panel brought together artist Joanna-Pousette-Dart, Jeffrey Katzin, Curatorial Fellow at the Akron Art Museum and doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, and Charles H. Duncan, Executive Director of the Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation for a conversation on the artist's practice.

Learn more about Richard Pousette-Dart

Elizabeth Sullivan (ES): Hi! Welcome. I just want to thank you all for attending what is to be a wonderful talk about the work of (opens in a new window) Richard Pousette-Dart. It will be a lovely conversation. Currently, at Pace Palo Alto, we have a beautiful (opens in a new window) exhibition of Richard's work, which is (opens in a new window) on view until December 19th. I'd love to give you a little background on our panelists today.

We have Charles H. Duncan. Charles is the Executive Director of the (opens in a new window) Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation. He curated the first museum exhibition and wrote a comprehensive catalogue on Pousette-Dart's photography. Charles also contributes frequently to publications including The Brooklyn Rail.

Our next panelist is (opens in a new window) Jeffrey Katzin. Jeffrey is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and a Curatorial Fellow at the Akron Art Museum. From Cleveland, Ohio, he specializes in the modern and contemporary art of the United States, with his research ranging from painting to photography, film, and video art. Jeffrey has received a certificate of Art Museum Studies from Smith College, a B.A. from Wesleyan College, and an M.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He's currently working on his dissertation at Penn.

And our final panelist is (opens in a new window) Joanna Pousette-Dart. Joanna was born in New York and graduated from Bennington College in Vermont. She's lived and worked in New York with lots of time spent in New Mexico. She is a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981, a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1989, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 2017. Her work has been the subject of many solo exhibitions, most notably at the Wiesbaden Museum in Germany, Lisson Gallery in New York and London, Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Texas Gallery in Houston, and many others. Her work also is featured in a (opens in a new window) three-person exhibition at PS1 MoMA in New York and is held in numerous public collections.

Before I turn you over to our panelists, I just want to let everyone know that there is a Q&A part to this conversation and you're welcome to submit questions at any point during the panel on the Q&A Zoom webinar feature at the bottom of your screen. You can upload any questions that you would like to see answered and the panelists will try to leave 10 to 15 minutes devoted to answering your questions. Without further ado, I leave you over to Charles, Jeffrey, and Joanna. Please enjoy. Thank you.

Charles H. Duncan (CHD): Good afternoon or morning, as it may be, to everybody. And hello to my colleagues Joanna Pousette-Dart and Jeffrey Katzin. Joanna is in New York City, Jeffrey is in Cleveland at the moment, and the exhibition that we're talking about is clear across the country in Palo Alto, California. So hopefully we'll have the bases covered with some different thoughts today. I'm Director of (opens in a new window) Richard Pousette-Dart Foundation and I'm actually broadcasting from Richard's former home and studio in Rockland County, which we will see some pictures of a little bit later today. I'm going to go into a PowerPoint just to share some images with people to sort of begin our conversation. Bear with me for one moment as I share the screen.

First of all, just to sort of orient who is Richard Pousette-Dart? Instead of going into any kind of lengthy biography, I thought I would begin sort of near the end. This is a picture of Richard Pousette-Dart from about 1990 in front of a painting that's in the exhibition, Presence, Circle of Night, from the mid-1970s. It's probably not by chance that this photograph was taken by the photographer Hans Namuth, who gained fame by photographing and filming Jackson Pollock in the 1950s and other Abstract Expressionist colleagues. When you mention the name Richard Pousette-Dart, the hashtag Abstract Expressionism often comes up. Certainly Richard, who was born in 1916, was part of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists and the people of the New York School. But the exhibition that we're going to look at today is work that really begins from the late 60s and goes to the end of his life in the early 90s. So that idea of centering Richard Pousette-Dart in this exhibition, in particular in this idea of Abstract Expressionism, is something that we can think about... How does that term apply or not apply to Richard Pousette-Dart especially in this era? And then the bigger question, where does Richard Pousette-Dart sit within all this? Of course, the best way to do that is to look at the exhibition and the works itself. I'm looking forward to having a conversation with Joanna and Jeff in that regard.

I'm just going to go forward. This is actually upstairs from where I'm sitting right now. This is Richard's studio in the mid-1970s with Richard, as you can see on the bottom right side, along with some of the types of paintings that are in the present exhibition in Palo Alto. This is the exterior of the house and I should just mention, not incidentally, we're very proud, this is where the foundation is based. The Richard Pousette-Dart House has been nationally, and on the state level, accepted into the registry of historic places. It's one of the few artist studio houses from Abstract Expressionists still in play and we're very happy that the foundation is based here.

But jumping to the exhibition in Palo Alto. These are installation shots and this is as we enter into the gallery. I'm going to go through a couple of shots, but I'm going to ask Joanna Pousette-Dart how we approach installing Richard's works? We can look at individual works but what goes into putting together an exhibition of Richard's paintings? What kind of things do you think about?

Joanna Pousette-Dart (JPD): Well, I think that these paintings are so rich and full of information. They're major presences and they take a long time to look at. They really radiate and move around. They're very, sort of, dynamic, and they require space and they require intimacy, in a sense. I was very happy that Liz Sullivan, the Director, and Douglas Baxter shared my feelings about installing these, so each painting had its own space, but that they had, as a group, the same kinds of conversations that they have in his studio. And the nice thing about this space is that when you are in the center of it, you are feeling the vibrations, so to speak, of these paintings from the different rooms you're seeing. You're having views through. And those views through were very important in the conversation that the paintings have. We really wanted to create a world, in a sense, a world of worlds, because each one of these paintings is really like a little world. So that's the challenge. And I think the space itself lent itself to this very nicely.

CHD: And a few additional images here. Some of the works on paper are framed. Richard traditionally did not frame his paintings. Does that play into the thinking of how we hang his paintings in an exhibition?

JPD: Yes, I think it does. I personally like the idea of seeing... They grow out of the canvas in an interesting way. And it's good to see the edges, to see going back in time in the painting—you see where it started and then how it builds. And I think the edges, or the sides of the paintings, are very important for me as a painter to look at. I know that some people then like to put frames, but I think for me, I like to see them as pure—the way he painted them. And I think the physicality isn't interrupted in any way.

CHD: I agree. Certainly the idea of scale comes into play with Richard's works. Oftentimes we look at images in books and marvel at them but lose all sense of scale of the work. Here this is five works from a series he did late in his life. Richard didn't generally work in series, but this group is called the Cosmos Paintings. Each of these are about 14 inches, obviously roundels, and although a picture for a sense of scale with the human comparison involved here, certainly Richard could toggle between scales. And when we exhibit... Obviously how much we fill up a space makes a difference with Richard's work. They can be very powerful. But certainly, thinking in terms of scale comes into play in hanging a show. What do you think?

JPD: Yes, I think also densities. The different densities that you see in the show. So, the relationship between the works on paper and the paintings is very interesting. That he was able to kind of work with very delicate graphite and gesso and create a great density. There's one drawing which will come up later, which is very minimal but gives an incredible sense of density.

CHD: Jeff, you wrote a wonderful essay for this exhibition, and in it you noted that, quote, "Faced with hundreds, thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of individual marks, even the most observant viewers cannot fully absorb these pictures in a single glance." Tell us what it's like to stand in front of a Richard Pousette-Dart painting and try to experience it.

Jeffrey Katzin (JK): Yeah, thanks for that question, Charles. Thanks for referencing my essay, which I really enjoyed writing. I feel like any time I write something, I can always talk more about it and expand beyond what's on the page. So, I'm happy to do that here. When I say that you can't fully absorb one of these pictures, I mean that very literally. I prefer to work, when looking at works of art, from the literal up to the sort of more rich content, because I think that if you start with what the object actually is and what your experience with it is, you build almost naturally toward the higher-level concerns, which I'm sure we'll get into. But to talk about what it's like to look at these, they truly are sort of, in a literal sense, overwhelming. When I see one of them from far, from across the gallery entering it, it looks like a lush gradient, oftentimes, or a really full space of color. You can see that effectively here as the density. And the picture that we're looking at really builds toward the very center of the canvas. You get a sense of these broad features, but at the same time, you note that they're made up of these many, many marks that I mentioned in my essay. And so that draws you closer to the picture. I think it's important, sort of like you said earlier, we often spend a lot of time looking at works of art and books, but to sound like one of my art history professors, the real thing always has no substitute. And in this case, that's important because the experience of looking at them is embodied—you look not just with your eyes, but with your feet as you walk closer, or with your torso as you lean in, and you relate to these things, really, in their actual scale. So those small details draw you in closer. And once you get to that distance, you realize that say this gradient, which looks sort of reddish-pink up close, it's really full of so many different colors—yellows, blues, the white is not necessarily at the density that you would think of. So much is unexpected when you get close to the picture. A white monochrome painting looks like that from afar, but up close, it may contain a whole entire rainbow spectrum of colors all in it. And you realize, furthermore, that each individual mark has a different quality to it, has a different size or density or height to the paint from each individual dab—none of which is exactly the same. And that's really what you can't absorb, is that specificity. Even if I had a photographic memory, I don't think I could wrap my head around all of it, my mental state. I couldn't take in every one of those bits. And so maybe you move back again for sort of a sense of wanting to get back to that overall picture because I'm sort of losing that sense of the painting. But then again, you'll sort of lose the sense of the detail because you can't possibly remember all of it. And so, you go back and forth. That's what I find myself doing. And it takes, like Joanna said, it takes time to do that vacillation and do that walking and moving around to really get a sense of the full satisfaction that you get from these pictures. Or maybe it's ultimately and somewhat inexhaustible.

CHD: Mhm. Go back to a little view of us. Joanna, you talk about the experience of time and duration in looking at Richard's work. Maybe you can elaborate a little bit more on that. We don't just go in and get a quick iconography of a work and put it in our head. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that sense of time.

JPD: Well, I think they involve time in a number of different ways. I think when you encounter them, you are, as Jeffrey said, you do have this sort of... there's this overwhelm factor where you think, my God, how long did this take to make? You feel that they took a very long time to be built. And you move through the layers as you look at the piece, as you get close, as you say. When you're away from it, you see it in one way, but when you move in, you really discover, because of the way that they're constructed, you discover all kinds of new things every time you look at them, honestly. Frequently these paintings have so many things underneath them and some of them may even start not as these implosions or forms, they may start in a very different way. They may have all different kinds of forms in them. But through the process in which he worked, which was that constantly... You know, he wasn't interested in painting something, he was interested in finding it, in the process of painting. And so, the paintings would go through enormous changes. Really, really enormous changes. And he talked very often about emptying and filling a painting. He might have an image that he begins to erase in a sense, and in erasing it, he finds something else that he wants to do. His process was very much open-ended—questioning, experimental, and then gradually, at some point, the painting builds, and it becomes what it's going to be. And he mentioned something over and over, which was this idea of tuning. That you get to the point where you're tuning it and that always seemed to me almost like a rheostat that you have this knob and you make the thing more intense, more alive, more of a vibration, more of a whole. And I think that's really what you feel when you look at the paintings. You feel this time that goes into it. Plus, the experience of looking is very meditative. You're pulled into this sort of, I don't know, it's like a dynamic... But it's also stillness, it's a kind of a place that you really are beyond time, you're beyond the temporal. And so, it sort of stretches time in an interesting way. And of course, many of the forums that he chose, certainly in this in this exhibition, the geometry, are timeless forms. They're universal forms. That was an important aspect. That he was dealing with this sort of universal language. These forms which spoke to everyone.

CHD: Right. If you go back to our screen share, I'm going to put a few more images up.

JK: Actually, before we move on, I just had a thought, sort of riffing on something from both you and Joanna, Charles. Because, Charles, you mentioned how these pictures sort of resist iconography and Joanna mentioned how they were open-ended. And what popped into my head was one of my favorite passages from reading Richard's various statements was one where he talks about how people are too, perhaps, intellectual and that they should spend less time sort of thinking and more time feeling and you can feel with your eyes. I think the work, especially from this period, is almost an object lesson in that it refuses to be a simple iconographic form, or you can give it a name and then move on. And it seems to beg you to look at more and more detail. And I think, like Joanna said, that's where you often get that meditative quality. It really draws you into thinking about detail and what exactly it is you're experiencing in the moment, not something you can conceptualize. And so I often, after I have been looking at work like this, I walk away feeling more perceptive and sort of charged. And I think that's a wonderful feeling to go away with.

CHD: I did want to put it up just a couple of works. The photograph is by Richard of Betty Parsons from 1948, a double exposure. And Richard was an accomplished photographer. And next to it, a work called Gothic #2 from the early 1950s. And the reason that we're showing these, not only just to show the diversity of Richard's work, which is formidable, as a person who worked in many different mediums and many different approaches to art-making over the years, but the idea of how he arrived at building up paintings through composites of dots and almost switching from something that was linear and analog to almost an idea of almost digital building. And when asked later in his life, I think when we look at paintings in Palo Alto, the word pointillism has come up in the literature ever since he started doing these. And careful to point out that pointillism is a whole system of color that relies on underlying light, it's very systematic. But that Richard, when asked about this later in his life, this pointillism, he referred back to his early experience in retouching photographs, saying that the photographs were basically made up to points of light. And so it was really interesting that we are able to see sort of almost on a molecular level or a granular level of light. There's an interesting quote by Alex Bacon, the critic who said that Richard's work is as if light is, paradoxically, the result of material accretion. So you're putting more paint on, and so doing that, you're getting more light out of the painting and building it up. But obviously, there are some analogies to retouching photographs and photography in general. But in terms of adding pigment, we're actually working with this idea of light through pigment. And I find that very fascinating, really, for these luminous effects that come out of adding all this pigment to painting. It's not that it's shiny paint, even black paint, along with other colors, can be very, very luminous. And he was just so masterful at being able to create that effect.

JPD: Yeah, and I think it's interesting, I think it's important to mention that in Richard's practice, that he was very much involved with sculpture and photography, as well as painting, and the cross-pollination that came through working back and forth between these different areas was really, really important. And it's fascinating to see how sort of the paintings influence the photographs through the way they were made–this sort of building process, layers upon layers. They affected the photographs in terms of the photographs—Richard using superimposition and composite forms in the photographs. If you go back to the picture of Betty and Gothic #2, you can see that relationship. And you can also see that in this painting from the 1950s, the beginning of this sort of atomization of the form, as early as the 50s, where the gesture begins to break up the grid, begins to break up the linear. And I think that, ultimately, the gesture that comes out of this photographic process, the sort of dab-like gesture is not so much pointillism as it's about creating a kind of an ether out of which things form, a kind of light out of which things grow and form. So I think the gesture creates a melding of light and form and surface. And just to talk and speak to what you were saying about Bacon's point, I've always found it interesting and paradoxical as well that these paintings are so incredibly physical. Some of them are very, very heavy. They're very densely painted. They can be very, very densely painted. And yet they feel light. They feel kind of ethereal, if you will, despite their physicality. So there's this interesting interplay between... Obviously, he was interested in this idea, in this kind of contradiction between the physical and light.

CHD: And at the same time, a very light touch on drawings and interesting applications. This is just straight graphite on paper. In this case, two works in the exhibition, graphite along with acrylic mixed together, working together that way. Jeff, you're involved with contemporary art and late 20th-century art as much as you are mid-century, 20th-century art. I'm wondering how you think of placing Richard post-1970? This is the year, 1970, Rothko dies, Pollock is long gone, Abstract Expressionism has sort of been codified something. And then we have Richard Pousette-Dart working for another 20 years in this vein. What type of dialogue do you see going on within the bigger picture of what's happening in art at that time?

JK: Yeah, I think that if you have an artist who is so just deeply committed to awareness of his materials, the form of painting and trying to push it in a truly new and intensive direction, the number of individual connections that you can find are just going to be enormous. He's just so deeply committed to painting that I could make connections to someone like Morris Louis or Jules Olitski, and other color field painters. Their sort of similarly intensive material investigations—Morris Louis pouring paint, thinned out acrylic paint into canvases and not controlling the results that he would end up with. Olitski eventually using spray guns to create a really, truly different look for painting. The dabbing technique and sort of allowing the texture and the material of paint to play a significant part in the way every mark looks has a similar quality to it, a similar impetus. Or you were talking about pointillism in the late 20th century. I think a far better connection is maybe Op Art and Geometric Abstraction where the idea of optical mixing, the sort of neurological phenomenon where your eye, when you can't see individual bits of color, mixes the color together in your perception, like when you look at a newspaper page and you see what looks like a photograph but if you look at it with a magnifying glass, it's actually black, magenta, cyan, yellow, just dots. And there were painters who really wanted to look at the relationship between your eye and your mind and focus on that type of quality. And Richard is sort of similar with some of the really richer, intricately colored dab-type paintings, doing a very similar thing. Then with that quality of lightness and luminousness that Joanna was talking about into the ‘80s, I would think of someone like Nancy Graves just using almost whimsical, amazing, bright colors, things that were totally unpredictable and surprising being a significant parallel there. I'm sure that I'm leaving out all sorts of possibilities. So maybe a broader thought would be better. One that I think of as an idea that spans much of the 20th century and intensifies as it goes, really, is artists trying to somewhat relinquish control over the process of what they're doing in their work. And that can be performance artists opening things up to chance, it can be photographers sort of going by Walter Benjamin's idea of the “optical unconscious” and how you'll never really see everything in a picture—you're not controlling all of it and then you make the print and there are things in it that you couldn't possibly have predicted. There are so many different ways that artists are opening themselves up to intelligences other than their own—material intelligence, or even in Richard's case, sometimes spiritual intelligence. And using this point of paint that he does, this relatively anonymous mark—it's not a Jackson-Pollock throwing the paint and it's supposed to represent your internal frame of mind, it's much more plain, and sort of trusts that the paint and the picture will make themselves into something maybe beyond your control. I think that fits into a broad strategy that artists have been exploring throughout the 20th century and even into the present and it's a wonderful strategy. It yields really interesting results through so many different approaches.

CHD: I put up here one of the Cosmos paintings and a little bit of comparison to a very early work by Richard from the early 1940s called (opens in a new window) Desert, which is at the Museum of Modern Art. When we look at the works in the present exhibition, some are all over fields, but we can't help but noticing there's a lot of geometric shapes that we're encountering and trying to place Richard's use and interest in these forms. I don’t know if you had a few thoughts about that, Jeff? If you want to share.

JK: Yeah, I think that you, further along, said that there might be images of his brasses, which are a great start here. Great. So, these are small brass sculptures that Richard started making as early as the 1930s and continued making all the way through the ‘80s. They're very small, made to be hand-held. One of his good friends, Jim Ede, wrote to him saying that he would keep one in his pocket and hold it in his hand on a regular basis. So, they're sort of like little talismans. Looking at them, you can see that they have some forms that look Christian or some forms that look African or Native American or Eastern, but that together it all seems to draw into a common vocabulary. And that's something that Richard and a number of the Abstract Expressionists were thinking about through writers like Clive Bell and the idea of (opens in a new window) significant form, which is one that Richard was continuing to reference all the way into at least the ‘60s. I've seen him start a speech by saying “art, true art, distinguishes itself by significant form.” And that idea was meant to be, for an art historian like Clive Bell, a search for what it is that makes something art as opposed to everything else that we don't call art. And his approach, Bell's approach, was to look across the cultures of the entire world and try to look for commonalities and what it was that humans were drawn to put into their image-making and into their artmaking. And what he settled on, at least in part, was geometric forms. This idea of finding a way toward universal forms—things that would really resonate with anyone, would resonate across cultures—is one that preoccupied many of the Abstract Expressionists and continued to occupy Richard's thinking for a long time. I love these drawings, which are likely from the 1930s. They seem so slight and light and simple. But I actually do some photographic work myself and I tried to make a picture riffing on one of these and it did not come off well. So as simple as they seem to be, it's really hard to actually get this type of thing right. I really love these. I think that, like in the work on the left here from the Abstract Expressionist period, there's a density there that isn't present in those drawings from the 1930s. I think later in the paintings that make up the Palo Alto exhibition and paintings from that period, that's when Richard really combined this interest in very simple universal forms that have this type of significant form style appeal with the density that he wanted to put into his Abstract Expressionist paintings. This interest in simple geometry is one that spans throughout his entire career.

CHD: Just a couple more images and I'm going to leave the screen share. And Richard’s work is... Joanna, you had mentioned this is a good time for, well it's always a good time for an exhibition of Richard's work, but particularly the meditative qualities of his work. The word spiritual gets thrown around a lot with Richard. I think he was very much looking for universals. I have to say that, you know, so much of the literature around Abstract Expressionism, and really about 20th-century painting, is so formalist in its orientation. It's very much rationalism looking at shapes. I often think that Picasso, an amazing painter, but he's not dealing with any subjects that you don't find in Dutch 17th-century painting. He's got portraits and still lives and landscapes and so on. Therefore, the conversations on the formation of places like MoMA have been very formalist. And certainly Greenberg, his concerns were very formal. That became then the dialogue around Abstract Expressionist painting and kind of pushed the ideas of spiritual and interpretation and other possibilities for works into a different dialogue that became very uncomfortable. I think for Richard, there was an idea of universality and balance in work that was understood before he began the work and he found many different ways of working towards that. As we talk about Richard's work and the spiritual nature of his work, if there is such a thing, it's sometimes an uncomfortable conversation but it's not something that's based within a particular creed or, as Richard said, “My religion is my art and my art is my religion.” And that working through these materials, one can come to, first of all, through the process of making, that meditative process of applying all these dots and tuning and working, but also the time element of experience. As you pointed out, Joanna, there's this meditative process involved with it. So, with all that said, a good time for us in our present situation and COVID time, when things are slow down a little bit, but also a lot of social concerns going on, perhaps a good moment to visit this exhibition and spend some time looking at these paintings in a deep looking sense, perhaps.

JPD: Yeah, and I think that every artist really is both working in response to their time and to the works that are made and the other artists who are alive and making things. They’re also thinking about the cave paintings and they're thinking about the Alhambra and they're thinking about a manuscript, an illuminated manuscript, or an African mask, or a Greek bowl. I think that all artists are channeling a lot of different things. I also think that there are artists that hold a mirror up to the present, they're about embodying the moment and dealing with the moment. Then there are artists who are interested in something outside of time, outside of the temporal, something that transcends the moment. I think my father was the latter. And I think that he was interested in the things that sort of spoke to what it is to be human in all cultures and in all times. Ultimately, in these paintings, he began to really find a way to kind of empty out but also to embrace a lot of different things which had meaning to him. I think that when you come in the show, you see references to all sorts of things, and I think those references are important to taking in the paintings. I think that they sort of hold you within them as well. So, I think that there is an element of timelessness in them in the same way that there is an element of timelessness in everything. I think everything great that you look at exists sort of outside of time, in its own sense. So, whether you call that spiritual or however you want to talk about that, I don't think it requires a label. I think the works speak for themselves. They’re a nice… I think this particular group of paintings, are kind of a nice antidote to this noise and fragmentation that we're surrounded by. I think it's sort of a chance that these were up at the moment, but I think they speak to it in a really important way.

CHD: Any last thoughts on that, Jeff?

JK: I mean, I think there's never a bad time for works of art that really encourage you to look closely and to have the meditative quality that I think we've been dancing around throughout. One statement that comes to mind from Richard, and it's a thing that he shared with many of his Abstract Expressionist colleagues, people who were trying to push abstraction forward, he says that “a circle can be anything you want, everything or nothing,” and goes on to give a bunch of different possible associations—the moon, the sun, the eye of God. It could be any of those, but sort of the opening way that he says it can be anything you want, it's just so important to say that these things can have different content for different people. He had no control over what any individual viewer was going to bring to it, but that they're so rich and dense that they stop you long enough that you're hopefully going to feel just something you can have as an important thing to take away.

CHD: Terrific. I’m going to stop the share and we can take a few questions. Happy to do that. One person asked, “How did the artist think about the titles for his paintings?” That's always a good question. Many of the paintings in this exhibition are titled Presence, which I think is about how we experience these and how they have a presence within it. Although I would say, Joanna, I think that Richard, first of all, he didn't work in series. He didn't head out to do a series of paintings on a particular subject or a particular theme or a particular bent, so to speak, but really kind of brought these things organically. He worked over, I must say, in a practical sense. When I first began working with Richard-Pousette Dart Foundation, I found that the dates on some of the works were very confusing to me because it would be 1972/1978, and I originally thought, well they don't know when he made this or we need to do more research on it, only to find out that Richard actually did work on this painting for six years, working on it, putting it away, pulling it back out. Or as we saw in the studio, working on many different paintings at once. So, the idea that you would set out with a subject and therefore titled your painting that subject… Jeff, as you would know, it's an interesting kind of Abstract Expressionist question where some painters have just used numbers and tried not to put titles on them. Then people like Clement Greenberg would title them for them with these heroic names.

JK: Or Tom Hess, yeah. I mean, someone like Barnett Newman would have friends over and they would get together for a party and come up with a couple of titles. But I think that what you're saying, and this idea speaks to what Joanna mentioned, I wanted to pick up on this word at some point, was the idea of “finding.” That you don't set out with an idea of “I'm going to paint this picture,” you find the picture as you go, and so, therefore, maybe title is something that comes in pretty late in the process.

JPD: Yeah, I think so. I think if you look at his entire oeuvre there are different approaches to titling. I think very often other people came in and said, oh, well, this is a good title for this. But I think Presences and Radiances were titles that he felt very close to because they were sort of general in a kind of a way, but they meant something. The idea of a presence is something that one hopes to achieve in painting. You hope that you will get a painting to feel present and real and alive. And I think that's what that title indicates.

It's this thing has become present. So this is Presence Number 1, this is Red Presence. So he riffed on that because it was elastic, and you could apply it to different things. I think that the Radiances is another aspect of that. That you would achieve a feeling in a painting that you had been after and it was a kind of radiance and so that was the title, it had numbers. The Cosmos, I think in this show I said, I think they feel like little worlds. The idea of Cosmos, I think is not only celestial, but it's also the micro/macro kind of relationship. That was something that was extremely... He thought about it a great deal, the relationship of the microscopic and the macroscopic and their interrelation and that everything in the world was really kind of interrelated in a funny way. So that's where these titles came from. I think other bodies of works, the titles were… You sometimes you come across a painting which you think, wow, yeah, that's a great title for that painting, that really makes sense. And then sometimes you come across paintings and you think, where did that come from? The main thing is that they [the titles] came after the paintings were done, because the paintings could, as you were saying, Charles, they could span large periods of time. Not necessarily that he's working actively on that painting for ten years, but it might be a ten year time frame from the time it was conceived, then you put it away, you work on it a little bit, you work on some other things, you bring it out again, you put it back and by the time the painting is resolved, it's maybe ten years later. And it is what it is. So, I don't know if that answers the question or not.

JK: I think pretty well.

CHD: A little bit of a mystery to some of these and I like that so many years later. We got a question about, “Can you tell us about Richard's white period of the 1950s? It seems to differ so wildly from the pictures in the exhibition.” I don't have the images of the white paintings, but they were very much drawing on canvas almost, wouldn't you describe them as… Joanna?

JPD: Yes, they're on there on gesso and titanium and a white lead, I think is what he was using, which you can't use anymore, and graphite. My father worked simultaneously on very different bodies of work. There's always a thread connecting them, but he frequently was at a place where he thought, I could go this way, or I could go that way, or I could go both ways. So the white paintings are very different from these but then they were done how many years, forty years earlier. They were done simultaneously with a group of paintings which were incredibly physical and incredibly colorful. We refer to them as the Gothic and Byzantine paintings because of the forms in them and because they have this incredible richness like stained glass windows or whatever. These are very built-up, dense paintings. So, it's almost like he was saying, OK, I'm doing this, but I also have this impulse to do the exact opposite, which was to empty out the field—to start with very little, a plain gesso thing, and draw into it and work between white paint and just that graphite. Working in both of those ways really satisfied a sort of a series of investigations, a series of experiments. That's really how he worked. He wasn't interested in seriality. Certainly, one painting would inform another painting would inform another painting would inform another painting. There wasn't a particular format that he arrived at that he wanted to continue to examine. He was, as I said, he was really interested in the process of finding the form, finding the imagery in the process of a painting. So, he would have starts and then those starts would take him in different directions and at a certain point, the painting would begin to make its demands, or its voice known, like “okay, this is what I want to be.” And he would follow in that vein. So, there are different periods where he was working... and at the same time that he was doing these white paintings and the Gothic and Byzantine paintings, he was doing wire sculptures that in a funny way, link the two of them together because they pull in the linear aspect of the graphite paintings, which you also see in the Gothic and Byzantine paintings. But you then see these kind of forms that you see in the paintings and in the sculpture at the same time. So, there was this kind of back and forth between all these things. His studio… It was a very rich practice.

CHD: Great. We got a very broad question that I'm going to throw Jeffrey's way, but it’s something that I think about. Asking what has changed in the perception of Richard's working career in the last twenty-five years? Obviously, that's not a simple answer. But I would say that, before I pass it to you, Jeffrey, I just think it's so great to be able to focus in on individual artists through their particular careers as opposed to broad -isms. I think even as simple as the Internet and Instagram and things are just helpful for us to get more information about particular artists instead of having to wait to have an exhibition of Abstract Expressionism and see one work. But that's a broader response to art history and communications. But I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about that, Jeffrey.

JK: Well, Charles, what I really want to do is throw the question back to you. But before I do that, I mean, you are really, as the head of the foundation, one of the keepers of his legacy. What I will say is that what I hope is happening, and I think to some extent is happening is that we're getting to a point where we can evaluate some of these mid-century painters or painters who started in that period. Like you're saying, a little bit apart from the -isms of Abstract Expressionism or especially readings by critics like Clement Greenberg, who you mentioned earlier. Greenberg was so heavily influential, and he had this formalist approach and the idea that painting ought to approach a certain kind of materiality and flatness, that is not necessarily what artists were thinking at the time. It's not necessarily solely what motivated artists. And yet, people associated with Abstract Expressionism, like Richard, have been judged against that legacy and seem to be limited by these particular ideas. When I think it's a lot better, like you're saying, to have an exhibition of a single artist and really focus on what drove that artist and what they were particularly interested in without necessarily relying so heavily on a given critic. And this is not to say, by the way, that I don't like Clement Greenberg. I love reading his writing, mainly because I think of his visual perception and his observations on paintings are tremendously good. But his broad schematization of art history and categorization of things can be very limiting.

CHD: I think we're in a period that can live with open ends, unresolved questions, a little bit more than high modernism, where everything has to be tidied up into a complete package and those things that don't fit in just don't get talked about at all—whether it's particular parts of someone's career or artists who kind of live outside those confines. I think now people are very interested in those things. We've been very fortunate to do some focus exhibitions on Richard's 1930s drawings and his photography and there's great interest in that. I think the result has been that when we go back and do an exhibition of Richard's works, we're now including brasses and photography and notebooks and other things. Also, I used to be at the Archives of American Art for many years, and that idea of bringing in primary sources into exhibitions and online is not just a dialogue about the works of art themselves and then a biography attached to them, we're able to look at a bigger context. With all artists, but I think especially historical artists, we're very, very fortunate that here at the foundation we have Richard's papers and his notebooks are here. And not only that, but the materials of his parents and things which really offer a great broad picture. And I think that artist-bound foundations just do a great job in giving a complete picture of an artist that way. So, yeah, that's what's changed, especially in the last twenty-five years or so. Anyway, but with that said, we're about the end of our time here. There are a few other questions I'd be happy to answer directly here.

I've enjoyed this very much today, and I hope that those who get a chance to get to Palo Alto to see the show can take a look for themselves and send us back what they think as well. I want to thank Joanna and Jeffrey and especially the people, of course, at Pace for making this possible. And just again, the show is up, I believe, to the 16th. So please do get a chance to take a look if you can.

JK: Oh, we got a correction here, up until the 19th.

CHD: Good! Got a couple extra days. Great.

JK: All the difference.

CHD: Terrific. Anyway, I want to thank everyone today, unless you have anything to add, I think we’ll sign off at this point.

JPD: Thank you, Charles and Jeffrey.

JK: Yeah. Thank you, Joanna and Charles. Thanks especially Charles for offering to moderate and give the foundation a thanks for all of us.

CHD: Thanks both of you. OK, bye.

  • Pace Live — A Conversation on Richard Pousette-Dart, Dec 18, 2020