Focal Point

Apr 4, 2007 at 2:06 pm

The small exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Transparent Reflections: Richard Pousette-Dart Works on Paper, 1940-1992, takes a neat chronological look at the work of this fringe Abstract Expressionist. One of the first images in the show, ASCENDING, dates to 1945 — a year that also marks the end of World War II and the beginning of the macho New York City art scene, complete with bar brawls, drugs, Life Magazine and an aggressive new way of making art.

In 1945, Pousette-Dart was a 29-year-old American artist living among the Abstract Expressionist painters; the small watercolor, gouache and ink on paper in the CAM exhibition demonstrates his early affiliation. Before Jackson Pollock's paint splashes and drips became so ubiquitous, "Ascending" would have been the epitome of Abstract Expressionism — an art that relied heavily on the hand and was, after all, not completely abstract.

On the contrary, before the drip paintings — and after — even Pollock was referencing something — mainly, a symbolism. In "Ascending" Pousette-Dart clearly references his own belief that art is a transcendent, mystical object and that his role as artist allows him to tap into a "power of the spirit," as he once said.

The work is a thick grid. At first it might appear completely abstracted, just colors and random shapes on paper. But the gouache and watercolor mix is so built-up it seems almost like a relief sculpture. Lines are carved out.

Look closer and you will certainly find the shapes and images that reigned heavily in 1940s/'50s art, when Carl Jung's philosophy of a "universal unconscious" was all the rage.

Jung's theory was — to put it briefly — that all of humanity was linked by a primordial unconscious that revealed itself through images. Those images — called totems — are what you see, albeit distantly, in Pousette-Dart's "Ascending." The lines and colors are not accidents of abstraction. Rather, they are the primal shapes (circles, moons, diamonds, and figures) that would, according to Jungian thought, allow both viewer and artist to tap into the great human subconscious.

Pousette-Dart was absolutely serious about his spirituality, which led him to leave the wild AbEx movement and move upstate. Unfortunately, as is telling in the exhibition at the CAM, neither his seriousness nor his fringe status didn't make him a better artist. The sum of the show is beautiful, deep and generous. Or maybe that's just history. (Transparent Reflections is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through April 29.)

FOCAL POINT turns a critical lens on a singular work of art. Through Focal Point we slow down, reflect on one work and provide a longer look.