Almost all artists of any standing go through periods of partial eclipse, years when the work is shown but rarely discussed, when they’re left out of group shows and surveys, when few people seem to be watching. For some, the attention never returns; others are only rediscovered after they die; but a fortunate few get to witness their own rebirth, with the combination of gratitude and frustration that generally accompanies such things. “I was never gone,” they say. “But I’m glad to be back.” Why it happens is hard to say. It’s just the cycle of things, the wheel of fortune, and right now it seems to be landing on Larry Poons, thanks to consistently appealing work (not a given for an 81-year-old), a new relevance in an age that has rediscovered abstraction, sheer doggedness, and an altruistic commitment to his art. A star turn in a new documentary, The Price of Everything, by Nathaniel Kahn, which will be broadcast on HBO November 12, doesn’t hurt.
The film’s title comes from one of Oscar Wilde’s bons mots, defining a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Its subject matter is that unfathomable, irritating, and inescapable pair, art and money: auctions, art fairs, dealers, collectors, and, last but not least, artists themselves, almost all of whom convincingly claim that the market means little or nothing to them.
But Poons is something else. He lives far from the center of things, in a house in the Catskills, and when we first meet him in the documentary, it’s not at a fair or inside a sleek gallery but in his cluttered front yard, where he has come
out to meet Kahn and his crew for the first time.
Thereafter, he comes across as warm, frank, guileless, profane, amused, insistent, and somewhat contrary. Speaking to me on the telephone a few months later, he was very much the same. For an artist whose work is an homage to pure painting, from his early dots on monochrome backgrounds to his later, less recondite work—paint thrown at canvases, shaggy skeins of dried acrylic—he was surprisingly voluble, though his references tend to be musical more than visual.
He spoke mostly about the contingency of art, how helpless the artist is, how little can be planned or deliberately conjured. “How can you tell if it’s any good?” he asks. “Even Beethoven didn’t know he was that good. Even Mozart had his doubts.” Of inspiration: “It’s something that happens. That’s all. There’s no guarantee it’s going to happen again, ever.” And then: “The third rule is: everyone falls down.” (If he had mentioned two preceding rules, I can’t remember what they are, and I can’t find them in my notes or the transcript.) When the spirit moves him, Poons speaks in Zen-like koans with a slightly wise-guy spin: “The way to concentrate on anything is not to.” “Everyone can’t paint blue, but Barnett Newman could.”
Like a number of his contemporaries—Frank Stella, for example, and Bruce Nauman—Poons came to prominence at a relatively young age and had a lot of fun along the way. By the time he was 30 or so, he was showing with Leo Castelli, perhaps the most influential dealer in the postwar art world. He hung out at Max’s Kansas City with the Warhol crowd. Bob Dylan rehearsed in his loft. So why did he leave the city?
“I stopped smoking and drinking a long time ago,” he says, “so everything I used to enjoy about the city, I wasn’t doing anymore.” He moved upstate, and the years went by. His work was as good as ever, but it was changing rapidly, and it seems to have confused even the people who admired it. Most artists settle quickly into a signature style, which then modulates throughout their career. Poons took his painting through radical, discontinuous shifts, or so it seemed to outsiders: cerebral, then violent, then sylvan. If some people couldn’t keep up, so much the worse for them. “They think the reason to be a poet is to make a living, or the reason to be a painter is to have a career, and that’s the most important thing there is,” he says.
Toward the end of The Price of Everything, Poons makes a strange admission, which he delivers in a tone of wonder, amusement, and defiance. “A lot of people have thought I was dead for a long time,” he says. “It’s not my fault.” I don’t know that the first part is true. I have yet to hear him eulogized, or referred to as “the late Larry Poons.” But the second part can’t be denied. He has been doing his job, making paintings that provoke, inspire, sing. The rest is out of his hands.
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