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Richard Pousette-Dart
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Wikipedia About Richard Pousette-Dart

Richard Pousette-Dart (June 8, 1916 – October 25, 1992) was an American Abstract Expressionist painter. Full Wikipedia Article

essay Richard Pousette-Dart, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

In 1951, Life magazine published a now-canonical photograph of fifteen artists of the New York School who had been dubbed “the Irascibles.”1 The picture includes most of the group’s major figures—Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Jackson Pollock. Among them, too, is Richard Pousette-Dart—in 1951, a key member of the avant-garde whose career was unfolding with great promise. Yet, as the Life photographer was composing the image that helped secure his role in a seminal art-historical moment, Pousette-Dart felt “fiercely by myself”2 and was on the verge of abandoning New York because of commercial pressures that he felt were damaging to his work. As he explained later that year, “The artist must beware of all schools, isms, creeds, or entanglements that would tend to make him other than himself. He must stand alone, free and open in all directions for exits and entrances.”3 By the end of 1951, he had moved his family and studio to rural New York, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Although he chose to isolate himself from his contemporaries just as he was achieving widespread recognition, his work of the 1940s reflects their shared interests and beliefs. He studied Asian philosophy and read Carl Jung’s work on archetypes and Mircea Eliade’s writings on myth and totemic imagery in Africa, Asia, and other non-Western cultures. Through his parents—artist Nathaniel Pousette and poet Flora Dart, who hyphenated their surnames in an early gesture toward equality of the sexes—he was exposed to modernist works by Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró as well as the mystical doctrines of theosophy, of which Dart was a devotee. He also studied American transcendentalism in the paintings of Albert Pinkham Ryder and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

During the 1940s, these ideas and influences gelled in powerful, semiabstract paintings such as Symphony Number 1, The Transcendental (1941–1942), a cacophony of cosmic pictographic symbols that—at 71/2-by-10-feet in size—is now considered the first epically scaled Abstract Expressionist painting. It was made at a time when Pousette-Dart was an outspoken pacifist, and it communicates both the chaos of wartime and the artist’s wish to transcend it. The Walker Art Center’s painting, Figure, dates from the climactic war years of 1944 to 1945 and seems to be a more direct depiction of the evil that had spread in Europe. A grinning, flailing wraith is drawn in calligraphic flourishes of black and white over a colorful grid of abstracted fish, birds, and flowers—the figure is both palpable and diaphanous, like a puff of poison smoke that hangs over the natural world.

After the end of the war and his move to the country, Pousette-Dart’s compositions became more ordered and quiet, eventually dematerializing into airy, pointillist fields of color. The evolution of his work from post-Surrealist figuration toward pure abstraction is a familiar trajectory in the history of Abstract Expressionism, but he refused to embrace “the tragic,” which Rothko and others considered an essential feature of the abstract sublime; in this, his work differs fundamentally from theirs.4 In contrast, Pousette-Dart considered his art inseparable from religion—both constituted, for him, “the living adventure of the creative.”5

  1. The photo was taken by Nina Leen in 1950 and published in the January 15, 1951, issue of Life with the article “Irascible Group of Advanced Artists Fight against Show.” In May 1950, the Irascibles had protested what they saw as the anti-abstractionist bias of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

  2. Quoted in Joanne Kuebler, “Concerning Pousette-Dart,” in Robert Hobbs and Joanne Kuebler, eds., Richard Pousette-Dart, exh. cat. (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1990), 18.

  3. Ibid., 16.

  4. This has been pointed out by both Irving Sandler, in Pousette-Dart: Paintings from the ’40s and ’50s (New York: Knoedler, 1996), and Donald Kuspit, “Return to Aura: The Late Paintings,” in Richard Pousette-Dart.

  5. Quoted in Kuebler, “Concerning Pousette-Dart,” 16.

Rothfuss, Joan. “Richard Pousette-Dart.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center