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Richard Pousette-Dart, Presence Number 3, Black, 1969, oil on linen, 80" x 80" (203.2 cm x 203.2 cm) © 2020 Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Essays

Richard Pousette-Dart, in Part and in Whole

By Jeffrey Katzin
Oct 21, 2020

Concurrent with our exhibition of Richard Pousette-Dart's work at our gallery in Palo Alto, we're pleased to publish the following essay by Jeffrey Katzin, Curatorial Fellow at the Akron Art Museum and doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Richard Pousette-Dart, Presence Number 3, Black (detail), 1969, oil on linen, 80" x 80" (203.2 cm x 203.2 cm) © 2020 Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This well-worn idea might seem too familiar to merit extended consideration, but any discussion of Richard Pousette-Dart's work would be incomplete without it. Across all of his art—from his early contributions to Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s and ‘50s, to his luminous painted fields and dense drawings from the ‘60s and beyond—the abundance of intricacy can be quite literally overwhelming. 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. Instead they must move forward to see the details, back again to gain an overall impression, forward once more to restore a sense of what becomes too small to see and too elaborate to remember, and on and on. Perception itself thus breaks into parts, and the only chance to resolve a whole is to keep looking. To maintain this delicate and enduring balance, Pousette-Dart ensured that in every picture no one portion has greater intensity than any other, and no dissonance disturbs the harmony of minute elements.

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Richard Pousette-Dart, Ramapo Forest, 1976, acrylic and graphite on paper, 22-1/2" x 30-1/4" (57.2 cm x 76.8 cm) © 2020 Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Each of the artist’s countless marks, then, could only be applied with care and concentration. Pousette-Dart described his process of achieving even vibration across a work as “tuning,” and it could require weeks or months of labor, as he added ever more touches of graphite or pigment. By his own estimation, his paintings could have as many as twenty or thirty additional layers beneath their finished surfaces, and each of those would have taken days of continuous effort. As Pousette-Dart advised his many students, “Art is to work hard.” He believed that each layer he put down was necessary in attaining a final, meaningful complexity. Even the hidden, buried parts contribute to the whole. In the artist’s own words: “Sometimes it seems as if I paint just one painting always, from a white canvas through an experience of colors and lines and then back to white again, yet always enriched, always different, always including more, always changing, nothing is ever lost… like an area of ground where much dancing has occurred.”

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Richard Pousette-Dart, Le Jardin Rouge, 1985, acrylic on linen, 40" x 80" (101.6 cm x 203.2 cm) © 2020 Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This last analogy opens Pousette-Dart’s work to forms of intelligence beyond his immediate control. A space for dancing does not forthrightly show every step that has taken place upon it, yet such a site can feel charged—it can seem to remember its own history. Pousette-Dart’s marks likewise seem to remember the intention and energy behind them, and this gives them a presence of their own. As the artist observed, “When the brush touches the canvas things happen that we could not know before and our preconceptions dissolve.” If this begins to seem vague or superstitious, note that it would have been truly impossible for Pousette-Dart to deposit one dab of paint on his canvas, and then to place an exact duplicate right next to it with the very same shape, thickness, and texture. No two parts among the thousands upon thousands are quite alike, and their creator could not know or choose their particularities before he made them. The paint itself helped to decide. Within each distinct creative act, Pousette-Dart’s efforts were multiplied in collaboration with his materials.

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Richard Pousette-Dart, Le Jardin Rouge (detail), 1985, acrylic on linen, 40" x 80" (101.6 cm x 203.2 cm) © 2020 Estate of Richard Pousette-Dart / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Yet, even with so much richness to be found in parts, Pousette-Dart worried that modern viewers “understand art through brilliance or technique, and not through what art really is—which is wholeness and depth.” Here, the artist acknowledged his heartfelt and lifelong spiritual commitments. Though he subscribed to no organized religion or philosophy, Pousette-Dart conducted his own search for wholeness though reading, introspection, and (most of all) artistic creation. He hoped that the density, vibration, and presence of his works would all contribute to an ineffable but clear trajectory, leading through beauty and on to the divine. He wittily described his working surface as “an opaque transparency through which I look into the unknown.” What was he hoping to find? Something so profound as to engender wholeness, and so significant as to be a part of everything: “Within or about every living work of art, or thing of beauty, or fragment of life, there is some strange inner kernel which cannot be reached with explanations, examinations, or definitions. This kernel remains beneath, behind, beyond. It is this dimensionless particle which lives, breathes and means. It is this living particle which makes art mystical, unknown, real and experienceable.”

Essays — Richard Pousette-Dart, in Part and in Whole by Jeffrey Katzin, Oct 21, 2020