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Paintings from the Edge

Two older couples -- fairly typical South Floridians -- were making their way through "Richard Pousette-Dart: The Living Edge" at the Boca Raton Museum of Art on a recent Sunday afternoon. As they paused before a wall of several gleefully messy abstracts from the 1940s, when Pousette-Dart was deeply immersed in abstract expressionism, one man commented disdainfully -- and as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up -- "I could do something like that. Everyone could do something like that."

It's that kind of show.

Pousette-Dart, who died a decade ago at the age of 66, is possibly one of the best-respected and yet least-known artists associated with the so-called New York School. Among the artists he hung with (and both influenced and was influenced by) were Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, and William Baziotes, any one of whom might have also elicited the above complaint. Pousette-Dart had his first solo show in 1941; by 1947, he was so well-established that he was given a solo show at Peggy Guggenheim's landmark Art of This Century gallery.

"The Living Edge" is the first major retrospective of works on paper by Pousette-Dart, and it includes a whopping 132 pieces from 1937 through 1992. It was organized by the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Germany, in cooperation with Pousette-Dart's estate (headed by his third and final wife, Evelyn), Houston's Museum of Fine Arts, and the Boca Museum. In his preface to the show's hefty catalog, Hellmut Th. Seemann argues that curators Victoria Martino and Konrad Oberhuber were "convinced... that, more than anything else, Richard Pousette-Dart's works on paper prove this artist to be one of the great masters of abstract art in the 20th Century."

In other words, this exhibition is a big deal. Or is it? Yes and no. As someone familiar with Pousette-Dart primarily from his large abstract oils on canvas, I was struck by the versatility he displays in these paper pieces, which toy with a variety of styles as well as a broad array of media. Along with such basics for use on paper as pencil, ink, crayon, charcoal, and graphite, the artist also used oil, acrylic, watercolor, gouache, and gesso, and he worked on surfaces ranging from thin tracing paper to thick handmade paper. The show also includes a few hand-colored etchings and one especially impressive collage. According to the catalog, he often worked simultaneously in different media.

After taking in the pieces from the 1930s, many of which are being shown publicly for the first time, one would not be surprised to learn that Pousette-Dart was also a sculptor. Indeed, several of these early works consist of little more than crudely delineated human figures positioned, like statues, on simple pedestals. Nor is it surprising that the Minnesota-born artist also dabbled in photography and wrote poetry and art criticism: His father, Nathaniel Pousette, was a painter and a writer, and his mother, Flora Louise Dart, was a poet and musician. (The two hyphenated their names upon marrying -- then an oddity in America.)

Aside from the aforementioned collage -- Untitled (Ricardo), assembled between 1946 and 1949 -- a lot of Pousette-Dart's work from the 1940s and '50s embodies some of the worst excesses of abstract expressionism. A few pieces feature clean lines and beautifully balanced compositions, but just as many seem congested and too heavily worked-over.

By the 1960s, however, the artist had begun exploring new territory. Much of the clutter disappeared, replaced by a fascination with simple geometric shapes, especially circles, and an emphasis on highly gestural brushwork. A lovely transitional piece called Garden Light even suggests that Pousette-Dart might have been heading in the direction of van Gogh.

But soon, the '60s pieces began to seem like (and may well have been) smaller studies for the big oil canvases for which the artist is best-known. Big circular forms, often representing the sun or moon, are central to many pieces, with countless daubs of color radiating outward. Sometimes the circles are at the center of a series of rings in contrasting colors.

A dramatic change came in the 1970s, when Pousette-Dart turned increasingly to a stark palette of blacks, whites, and grays. Some of the images from this era are more or less uninspired doodling. Others are appealingly pared-down versions of the earlier circle pictures. The 1978 pencil drawing Untitled (Equinox), for instance, is dominated by a spiky circle in the center, surrounded by thin, wispy, seemingly random markings.

Despite their similar titles, the pencil drawings Particle Implosion (1976) and Implosion (1978) appear to be visual opposites: The tiny dots of the former get denser toward the center, as if they're being drawn into a black hole, while the latter consists of countless thin lines that seem to be radiating from, rather than heading toward, the white center. Dark Garden (1978) is a strangely sensual, all-black piece in which graphite and acrylic create a highly textured topography.

For the final decade or so of his life, Pousette-Dart tinkered with his earlier styles, and most of the results look like the work of someone who's simply marking time. (Three 1980 pieces included here -- Chaplet of the Sun 9A, Chaplet of the Sun 9B, and Original Fluttering Flowers (A) -- are exceptions, etchings so pale and ephemeral that they seem to be on the verge of evaporating altogether.) That's the downside of this sweeping retrospective: By the time I reached the end of it, I'd seen enough Pousette-Dart to last me a very long time.

If you too find yourself in Pousette-Dart overload by the end of "The Living Edge," be sure to head down to the far end of the first floor, where you'll find a small but impressive exhibition called "Matthew Carone: Recent Works," part of the museum's Florida Artists Series. There are only 27 pieces in the show -- 18 in acrylic on canvas, nine in mixed media on paper -- but all are worth a look, and a few are outstanding.

Carone, who was born in New Jersey in 1930, is a sort of latter-day surrealist who took a detour into abstract expressionism and back. All but one of the pieces shown here are from the past two years. The works on paper are the most abstract, while the acrylics tend to focus on human and animal forms, although highly distorted.

The first (and oldest) picture is the mordantly witty Jacob and the Angel (Tango II), which, as the title indicates, turns the biblical wrestling match between Jacob and the angel into a grim tango. Carone is a protégé of Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta, whose influence is clearly present in many of the other paintings, but in this case, the muse seems to have been Francis Bacon.

Matta, Bacon, and perhaps others appear to be the spirits presiding over Carone's most startling painting shown here, a large acrylic called -- and the image is overpowering even before you read the title -- September 11th, 2001. Rather than try to capture the horror of that day in any literal way, Carone has abstracted it, transformed it into atmosphere.

To the left of the canvas is an elongated, vaguely human-looking creature whose oversized red spinal column appears to be fragmenting. In the center is a tangle of shapes suggesting both humans and animals, and to the right are two swaths of red -- the World Trade Center towers? -- collapsing into an X.

We've all been inundated with so many images of that fateful day that it's hard to imagine someone making us see it in an altogether new way. Carone has done it by creating an aura of dread, anguish, sorrow, and more -- all the unforgettable, ineffable feelings associated with 9/11.

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Michael Mills

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