Nick Hackworth

Larry Poons: New Paintings, Bernard Jacobson Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

“Our cowboy Monet” is what punk star Patti Smith called American painter Larry Poons in the 1970s and that description has remained curiously appropriate. He came to prominence in the mid-Sixties as a protégé of abstract expressionists Agnes Martin and Barnett Newman and was championed for a long time by the American critic Clement Greenberg. From his earliest works to his latest, displayed here in his first major show in the UK since 1968, he has demonstrated a commitment to the painterly concerns associated with abstract expressionism: the expressive power of colour unencumbered by use in figurative form, compositional harmony and the sheer physical quality of the paint itself. He has, however, constantly pushed the boundaries of his own language of painting, which is what, I guess, makes him a cowboy (along, that is, with his reported penchant for cowboy hats).

Poons’s willingness to innovate has borne fruit and these new paintings, all completed within the last two years, count among the most successful he has made. Over time his paintings have become more complex. His career began with large, clear compositions of dots and shapes floating in colour. Now, working loosely with brush and finger, he creates very dense, multi-layered work. Myriad colours are applied in strokes, squiggles, blobs and more expansive, flatter passages. Various forms float on the surface; lines, arrows, circles and pyramids. At first glance, the six large paintings on show seem the result of an unsuccessful merger of a paint factory and a pizza kitchen. But there is method here and judgment. The dominant colours and hues — beiges, browns, muddy greens and yellows — are taken from the earthy end of the spectrum and work together with great harmony. Moreover, Poons’s handling of form and depth gives pieces such as Old Dan Tucker coherence so that no part looks out of place.

Frank Stella, another US artist, writing about the reception of Poons’s work, observed that “the public is not particularly attuned, or even sympathetic, to pictorial drama or originality”. Obnoxious as that sounds, it’s probably true. We are happy to appreciate the beauty of pure sound on its own terms, but less happy to do the same for colour, form and texture.

Perhaps it is time to give the visual a break.

From 30 May until 13 July. Tel: 020 7495 8575