Richard Pousette-Dart Biography
Richard Pousette-Dart Biography

Richard Pousette Dart photo by Herb Breuer
c. 1939

Richard Pousette-Dart (June 8, 1916 – October 25, 1992) is most prominently recognized as a leading member of the New York School group of Abstract Expressionist painters.

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 at the Scarborough School, Scarborough-on-Hudson. In 1936 he attended Bard College but left after several months to pursue his painting independently in Manhattan, working first as assistant to sculptor Paul Manship and then in the photography studio of Lynn T. Morgan as he experimented with stone and brass sculpture, painting, drawing and photography in his studio by night.

The late 1930s and early 1940s were years of dynamic growth for Pousette-Dart. Influenced by the Vorticist sculpture of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, he created a lexicon of biomorphic and totemic forms that would provide rich visual and symbolic sources for early paintings, such as Bird Woman (1939-40), and continue to enrich his extended painted repertoire. Deeply interested in the spiritual possibilities of painting, “the dynamic balance, or edge between the conscious and unconscious”, he read Jung, Freud, the Transcendentalists, and Eastern religious texts, as he simultaneously encountered works by European cubists and surrealists being exhibited in New York. Also paramount to the development of Pousette-Dart’s artistic vision was African, Oceanic and Native American primitivism as championed by Russian émigré John Graham, who served as a guide for the young painter and even sat as his photographic subject during the late 1930s.

The first one-man exhibition of Richard Pousette-Dart’s paintings occurred at the Artists’ Gallery in New York in the fall of 1941. The following year he completed Symphony Number 1, The Transcendental (Metropolitan Museum of Art), regarded today 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 the 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, with his Spirit (1946) being exhibited at the XXIV Venice Biennale as a featured selection from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

In 1948 Pousette-Dart had his first one-man exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery, sharing the gallery roster initially with Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Theodoros Stamos and Ad Reinhardt, some who became subjects for Pousette-Dart’s groundbreaking exhibition of photography that year. Living and working near the Queensboro Bridge in Manhattan, his East River Paintings and wire sculptures of the period embrace an amplification of line, often realized within paintings by the direct application of paint from the tube onto mixed-medium grounds that include sand, poured paint, and gold and silver leaf. Additional paintings from the period invoke Gothic and Byzantine manuscript illuminations, mosaics and stained glass windows, using heavy impasto and resplendent, prismatic color to celebrate the artist’s belief in the transcendent power of mythic forms, as well as the art-making process itself.

A fiercely independent artist throughout his career, Richard Pousette-Dart contributed meaningfully to key discourses that shaped the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. In 1948 he attended gatherings at the Subjects of the Artist school, an informal group organized by William Baziotes, David Hare, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko that would later became known as the Eighth Street Club. In 1950 he participated in a three-day conference at Studio 35, and a year later his painting was included in the landmark exhibition Abstract Painting and Sculpture in America at The Museum of Modern Art, which had acquired his Number 11: A Presence (1949). In 1951, Pousette-Dart gained additional renown by appearing in Nina Leen’s iconic photograph "The Irascibles" in Life Magazine featuring prominent painters who had formally protested contemporary art policies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Richard Pousette Dart photo by Herb Breuer
Photo by Herb Breuer, c. 1962

Despite this growing recognition within the New York art world, in 1951 Pousette-Dart and his family relocated 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, and major bodies of work from the period include the "White Paintings" – ethereal compositions of graphite line on variegated white grounds. He continued to exhibit regularly at the Betty Parsons Gallery while his work was increasingly featured in museum exhibitions in the United States and abroad. During the decade he also delivered many influential talks on the nature of painting, and was recognized with both a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and Ford Foundation grant.

Pousette-Dart's painting moved in a new direction in the 1960s. Simplified compositions and innovative methods of applying paint yielded paintings and works on paper which gravitated towards vibrating fields of thickly-layered points of color, many incorporating manifestations of the circle and other geometric forms – visual metaphors for cosmic timelessness. Such painterly contemplations on the effects of light and "significant form" resulted in several large series, including Hieroglyphs, Presences, and Radiances. This new work was introduced to the public in a retrospective exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1963, and the following year the Museum of Modern Art acquired Radiance (1962-63), a major painting in this new orientation. In 1969 Lucy Lippard organized a traveling exhibition of these works for the Museum of Modern Art, "Richard Pousette-Dart: Presences."

As a mature artist, Pousette-Dart embraced teaching, accepting various positions at the Art Students League, New School for Social Research, School of Visual Arts, Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College, and he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Bard College. In 1981 he was honored with the inaugural Distinguished Lifetime in Art award from the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, and in 1982 was invited by the International Committee to exhibit in the main pavilion of the 40th Venice Biennale. Retrospective exhibitions followed in 1986 at the Museum of Art – Fort Lauderdale, Florida and at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1990, the latter serving as the definitive lifetime survey of the artist’s achievements. Richard Pousette-Dart died in New York City on October 25, 1992.

In 1997-1998, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a survey exhibition of Pousette-Dart's lifework. In 1998, the Whitney Museum of American Art presented "Richard Pousette-Dart: The Studio Within", a major exhibition of paintings featuring a recreation of the artist’s studio, curated by Adam Weinberg. In 2001 an exhibition of works on paper was organized and curated by Konrad Oberhuber and the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany. This exhibition traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston Texas, as well the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida. In 2007, the Peggy Gugenhiem Collection in Venice Italy, along with the Solomn R. Gugenheim Museum in New York, jointly produced a retrospective exhibition of Pousette-Dart’s work. In June of 2010, the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, staged an exhibition entitled "Predominantly White paintings", which was a revisiting of the original Betty Parsons exhibition that featured these works. The following year, the artist’s work was included in the exhibition, "Abstract Expressionist New York," at the Museum of Modern Art.