Curator's Choice

Richard Pousette-Dart

Imploding Black

By Michaëla Mohrmann


Richard Pousette-Dart, Imploding Black, 1985-86, acrylic on linen, 72" x 72" (182.9 cm x 182.9 cm) © 2020 Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“What is time? A secret—insubstantial and omnipotent. A prerequisite of the external world, a motion intermingled and fused with bodies existing and moving in space. But would there be no time, if there were no motion? No motion, if there were no time? . . . Is time a function of space? Or vice versa? Or are the two identical? . . . How does our makeshift assumption of eternity and infinity square with concepts like distance, motion, change, or even the very existence of a finite body in space?”

—Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

When I encounter Imploding Black by Richard Pousette-Dart, the hazy, dark void at its center seems to gaze back at me like an enlarged, lone pupil. I feel enmeshed in its forcefield. As with identical magnets that repel each other, the generous distance between my body and this human- scaled canvas solidifies as tension. Its black, hypnotic core draws me closer to its surface, which appears to crackle with electric energy. Susurrating like television static, an outer zone of gray and white dots slowly condenses into a vaporous ring irradiated by color; shrill oranges and acidic greens are gradually overtaken by blues. As I approach the candescent painting, the other two primaries emerge, but by then I am entirely focused on the work’s commanding center. What captivates me is not its chromatic purity (many hues faintly glitter through the black) but its material density. Here, more than anywhere else on the canvas, Pousette-Dart builds up dabs of paint with meditative intensity, creating a nucleus with a palpable mass that exerts a sort of gravitational pull, like a black hole for the eyes. The body can only follow suit. Lucy Lippard notes that before Pousette-Dart’s work one can “almost kinesthetically [be] drawn into the making of process.” The artist himself observed, “Participation is the only explanation of art.” Indeed, through its intimation of the attentive acts that went into its making, Imploding Black enlists viewers in a protracted, phenomenological dance that lives up to its title’s use of the present participle, that indicator of a condition or action still unfolding in the present. It is a consummate painter’s refutation of those who, beginning in the 1960s, had prematurely proclaimed the death of painting. (Perhaps uncoincidentally, Pousette-Dart developed his point-based technique during this decade.)

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Richard Pousette-Dart, Imploding Black (detail), 1985-86, acrylic on linen, 72" x 72" (182.9 cm x 182.9 cm) © 2020 Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There was always something insistently physical about Pousette-Dart’s work. The youngest member of the first generation of the New York School, he was also the first of this group to create a monumental picture, Symphony No.1, The Transcendental (1941–2). Over eleven feet long, the daring canvas heralded a new relationship between painting and its dwarfed viewers, one unfolding in space and time. While his paintings stage an experience in the here and now, Pousette-Dart also believed, as the title of this monumental work makes plain, that his art could open unto the metaphysical and “express the spiritual nature of the Universe,” to cite his own words.

How can the embodied experience of Pousette-Dart’s work be reconciled with its pursuit of an extratemporal and exalted realm? To explain, a return to technique is necessary. Though Pousette-Dart’s application of paint is often likened to Pointilism, his points are not subservient to the creation of a homogeneous image. Rather than evoking Georges Seurat, his technique is reminiscent of Rembrandt’s accretion of white in, for instance, Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Gold Chain (1634), which renders lace more tactile while also literalizing its illusionistic proximity to the viewer as physical fact (hence why Rembrandt reserves his impasto for only the top layers of lace). Said otherwise, Pousette-Dart’s canny manipulation of pigments is topographic and sculptural, as well as preoccupied with space. As Lippard observes, “The mounds of pigment expand into mountains, and an inch of literal space becomes a binocular view from great height.”

It is not coincidental that Pousette-Dart’s paintings suggest to Lippard a different kind of vision, one amplified by a lenticular apparatus. “Photography was how I got to the point,” Pousette-Dart explained, tying his painterly innovations to another medium with which he had produced a large body of experimental works. “I find that I can achieve variations in form through many touches of the brush in a way that I can't with a single stroke of the brush,” he added. While retouching photos in the studio of photographer Lynn T. Morgan between 1938 and 1941, Pousette-Dart had discovered the structural granularity of film when magnified by yet another type of lens. This experience revealed to him that “all form is made up of so many points of light and that everything has a molecular structure.” In other words, his technique traces a continuum between the micro- and macroscopic. Imploding Black links its tiny, static dots to another extreme—a dynamic, cosmic void, which replicates their nebulous, circular form, albeit on a grander scale. This conceptual bridge from alpha to omega intimates that contingent particularities—impasto points, a painting, or even the viewer—are not the unreconcilable opposites of infinite, ineffable, and eternal phenomena. Rather, they are its components and its conduits. Like the great poets and philosophers, Pousette-Dart sees “a world in a grain of sand” and allows us to see it, too.

Essays — Curator's Choice: Richard Pousette-Dart, May 8, 2020