Richard Pousette-Dart, American (1916 - 1992)

Richard Pousette-Dart was a pioneering Abstract Expressionist and a visionary of the New York School, which was active in the 1940s and 50s.  Despite significant contact with all members of this group, Pousette-Dart chose to leave New York City in 1951 to preserve his artistic freedom.  He remained fiercely independent throughout his career, creating transcendental paintings of extraordinary depth and radiance.  Powerful dualities—circle and square, man and cosmos, spirit and body, light and substance—are central to his work.  He explained in a 1947 artist statement, “I strive to express the spiritual nature of the Universe. Painting for me is a dynamic balance and wholeness of life; it is mysterious and transcending, yet solid and real.”

Born on June 8, 1916, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Pousette-Dart grew up in a culturally rich environment in Valhalla, New York, where his family moved in 1918.  His father, Nathaniel Pousette, was a painter and writer on art, and his mother, Flora Louise Dart, was a musician and poet.  From childhood, they fostered their son’s interest in art, philosophy, music, and literature.

Although Pousette-Dart had no formal art training, he spent considerable time as a child watching his father at the easel and discussing painting with him.  After graduating from Scarborough-on-Hudson High School, he briefly attended Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, leaving before the end of his first year to pursue a career as an artist.  Encouraged by his parents, he moved to Manhattan in 1937.  To support himself, he first served as assistant to the sculptor Paul Manship, his father’s friend, and then worked as a secretary in a photographic studio.  In 1939, he quit his job and devoted himself fully to painting and sculpture.

During the 1940s, Pousette-Dart was active in the avant-garde New York art world; he became one of the youngest members of the emerging group of Abstract Expressionists.  His early paintings reflect his interest in Cubism, biomorphic Surrealism, Jungian and Freudian theories of the unconscious, and African and Native American art.  He had his first solo show at the Artist’s Gallery in 1941 and subsequently exhibited at Willard Gallery along with Mark Tobey in 1943, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in 1944, and at the Betty Parsons Gallery (regularly from 1948 to 1967), where Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko also showed their work.  Pousette-Dart participated in discussions about abstraction at the legendary Studio 35, a meeting place for Abstract Expressionist artists, including William Baziotes, David Hare, Robert Motherwell and Rothko, and in the activities of the Eighth Street Club, founded by Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Ad Reinhardt among others.  He also socialized with Abstract Expressionist painters at the Cedar Street Tavern on University Place and at the 59th Street Automat.

In 1951, Pousette-Dart moved to Rockland County, New York, where he lived with his wife, the poet Evelyn Gracey, until his death in 1992.  This self-imposed isolation from the New York art world enabled him to distance himself from the Abstract Expressionist movement and helped him to develop the unique character of his imagery.  However, he maintained a connection with the next generation of artists by teaching at a variety of schools in and around New York City, including the New School for Social Research, the School of Visual Arts, Columbia University, the Arts Students League, Bard College and Sarah Lawrence College.

The substance of paint, often squeezed directly on board, is a crucial aspect of Pousette-Dart’s work.  Its materiality adds dimension to the viewer’s experience of light and color.  Each touch carries distinct highlights and shadows that shift according to the position of the viewer or the source of light.  As the viewer juggles the distinct tasks of apprehending underlying shapes and appreciating the physicality of each tiny unit of color, the experience of seeing becomes as important as what is seen.

Pousette-Dart’s oeuvre displays cyclical variations on themes and often resists neat categorization according to a linear, chronological progression.  Although there are exceptions, early in the 1960s Pousette-Dart generally backed away from including recognizable shapes and symbols in his work, instead creating diffuse “implosions” of pointillist color.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he became preoccupied with reintegrating geometric shapes.

His works can be found in the collection of many major museums in the United States, including the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Gordon, John, ed.  Richard Pousette-Dart. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art in cooperation with Praeger, 1963.

Hobbs, Robert, and Joanne Kuebler.  Richard Pousette-Dart.  Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art in cooperation with Indiana University Press, 1990.

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