Spring 2010

Larry Poons: Reaction to Color

By Linnea Kniaz

At a lecture following the opening reception of “Larry Poons: Recent Paintings” at the Esther Massry Gallery at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, the seventy-three year old esteemed abstract painter Larry Poons proclaimed, “the trick is to let it happen and not get in the way because that’s what stops it.” Referring to his process that encourages a constantly evolving body of work, Poons rejects learning, problem solving, and choosing results and, instead, advocates artistic improvement through accepting one’s unexpected mistakes.

As a fearless and uncompromising artist, in the 1960’s Poons abandoned his critically acclaimed and nancially supportive practice of painting elliptical dots on monochromatic canvases. This allowed him to produce a diverse range of works culminating in these most recent paintings now on display at Esther Massry. Considered by Poons as a “collection of mistakes,” these large acrylic paintings on canvas appear “overloaded” with vigorous strokes of vivid colors. Despite his diminutive stature and irregular stride, at the lecture Poons zealously enlightened the predominantly student audience, oering insight into the mind of this long-standing and still ourishing artist.

While divulging his favorite artists (including Paul Cézanne and Fernand Léger), advising art students to paint what they can paint rather than what they want to paint, and—on occasion—responding belligerently to the audience’s questions, Poons dened the practice of painting: “It all comes from color. It all comes from our reaction to color.” Although germane to all painting, color, or light, seemingly transcends a mere characteristic of these latest works and actually becomes their subject matter.

Echoing the artist’s animated demeanor, his eleven works on view emanate vitality. Nevertheless, viewers do not feel overwhelmed. Whether inuenced by the gallery’s layout or gallery director Jeanne Flanagan’s curatorial decisions, which acted in accordance to Poons’s vision, viewers resist the arbitrary pull of each work. Rather, moving systematically from the left of the gallery’s entrance and around its perimeter, one’s mind falls into a tranquil rapture. As a consequence of this state of mind, viewers overcome the congested homogeny of innumerable minute marks on the surfaces and actually contemplate each work—and each mark—thus taking pleasure in imagining Poons developing an entire work, stroke by stroke.

The first seven paintings, created between 2004 and 2008, reverberate in an amalgamation of colors and brushstrokes. His 2008 Salley Gardens embodies certain qualities apparent in these rst works. When one approaches the work and gets lost in its mass of color, these patterns transpire. Despite the work’s seeming consistency, the marks represent dichotomy: dry, crayonlike streaks and glistening globs, organic, eroded shapes and linear dashes, delicate, bleeding washes and purposefully dened lines, splatter and stroke, isolated and coalesced, iridescent and opaque, exposed canvas and paint. When experiencing the work in its entirety from a distance, however, one observes full shapes and color groupings of Permanent greens and cool and warm hues.

The marks then become less interesting and one can, with pleasure, experience only color. Following these works, the 2009 La Famiglia marks a transition. In primarily muted washes and with exposed canvas and larger shapes, this work distinguishes itself from the others. Forms are easily apparent, even from a close proximity, thus, a viewer can understand how a family of gures, as the title suggests, unexpectedly presented themselves to the artist. Farther around the gallery’s perimeter, the 2008 Lamplighter, also exemplies Poons’s freedom to accept the unexpected. With Phthalo and Ultramarine blue painted on two-thirds of the canvas’s surface underneath his characteristic brush marks, viewers can nally rest their eyes on a dark, concrete form and prepare to depart from these anthologies of light.

After exploring each painting, analyzing each mark, and searching for answers, however, I suggest that viewers abandon this learning, problem solving, and obsession with results and consider Poons’s advice: Let the works happen without getting in the way. Whether believing they are ‘collections of mistakes’ or anthologies of light, simply accept the paintings as they are and react to the color.