Richard Pousette-Dart (June 8, 1916 – October 25, 1992) is most prominently recognized as a first-generation Abstract Expressionist painter.
Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota to Nathaniel Pousette, a painter, writer and art director, and Flora Louise Dart, a poet, Richard Pousette-Dart moved with his family to Valhalla, New York in 1918 where he was raised in a culturally rich environment. Forging strong personal convictions as a young man, Pousette-Dart declared himself a pacifist before graduating from high school. He attended Bard College, but left before completion to pursue an independent course as an artist in Manhattan, working first as assistant to sculptor Paul Manship and then in the photography studio of Lynn T. Morgan. During this time he considered himself primarily a sculptor, and he experimented widely with stone, brass, painting, drawing, photography and etching.
The late 1930s and early 1940s were years of dynamic artistic growth for Pousette-Dart. Influenced by the Vorticist sculpture of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, he forged a lexicon of biomorphic and totemic forms that would provide rich visual and symbolic sources for early paintings such as Bird Woman [link] and enrich his extended painted repertoire. He was deeply interested in the spiritual possibilities of painting – “the dynamic balance, or edge between the conscious and unconscious” – as well as the plastic and enegetic immediacy of African, Oceanic and Native American carving.
The first one-man exhibition of Richard Pousette-Dart’s paintings was staged at the Artists’ Gallery in New York in fall of 1941. The following year he completed Symphony Number 1, The Transcendental [link], recognized as one of the first mural-size canvases of the Abstract Expressionist movement. Heroically ambitious, Symphony unveiled in monumental scale the complex interlocking and layering of forms as well as interplay of surface and light that would become hallmarks of Pousette-Dart’s mature accomplishments. Successful one-man exhibitions followed at the Marian Willard Gallery, Howard Putzel’s 67 Gallery and Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century.
In 1948 Pousette-Dart inaugurated a long-standing relationship with the Betty Parsons Gallery, exibiting there with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Theodoros Stamos and Ad Reinhardt, some of whom served as sitters for his groundbreaking exhibition of photography that year. By the late 1940s Pousette-Dart’s paintings and wire sculptures began to embrace the amplification of line, often realized by the direct application of paint from the tube onto mixed-medium grounds interwoven with sand, poured paint and gold and silver leaf. Embracing a deep appreciation for Gothic and Byzantine manuscript illuminations, mosaics and stained glass windows, Pousette-Dart employed heavy applications of impasto and resplendent, prismatic color to celebrate the transcendent power of mythic forms, as well as the art-making process itself.
Although Pousette-Dart maintained a fiercely independent position throughout his career, he contributed meaningfully to key discourses within Abstract Expressionism. In 1948 he attended gatherings at the Subjects of the Artist school and, in 1950, participated in the three-day conference at Studio 35. In 1951, Pousette-Dart gained additional fame, appearing in Life Magazine in Nina Leen’s iconic photograph The Irascibles, which featured prominent painters who had formally protested contemporary art policies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Despite this growing recognition within the New York art world, Pousette-Dart relocated with his family in 1951 to a farm house in Sloatsburg in Rockland County, New York and then to nearby Suffern, where he lived and maintained a studio for the rest of his life. The 1950s proved to be a prolific decade for the artist, with major bodies of work from the era including White Paintings – ethereal compositions derived from graphite line on variegated white grounds.
Pousette-Dart's painting moved in a new direction during the 1960s. Simplifying his compositions and exploring new methods of applying paint, his paintings and works on paper gravitated towards vibrating fields of thickly-layered points of color. Many works incorporate manifestations of the circle and other geometric forms and these works which isolate and highlight “significant form” resulted in series titled Heiroglyphs, Presences, and Radiances. Examples of this new direction were introduced to the public at a retrospective exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1963.
As a mature artist, Pousette-Dart embraced the role of teacher, holding various positions at the Art Students League, The New School for Social Research, Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College, and he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters at Bard College. In 1981, he was honored with the inaugural Distinguished Lifetime in Art award from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, and in 1982 invited by the International Committee to exhibit in the main pavilion of the 40th Venice Biennale. Retrospective exhibitions followed in 1986 at Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1990, the latter serving as the definitive survey mounted during the artist’s lifetime. Richard Pousette-Dart died in New York City on October 25, 1992.