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. In contrast, Pousette-Dart considered his art inseparable from religion—both constituted, for him, “the living adventure of the creative.”