Richard Pousette-Dart’s majestic 1943 canvas Composition Number 1 is a summation of the artist’s clear vision of celestial transcendence. Architectural, black calligraphy outlines the composition, giving way to ovoid and spherical biomorphic forms that are punctuated with vivid color and pulsate with the artist’s fervent and immediate brushwork. As if he were commenting on the present work, Philip Rylands elaborates on Pousette-Dart’s inimitable technique: “Paint is smeared, squirted, dragged, smothered or scribbled with the hard brush or brush end. The grid becomes a breeding ground for vestigially geometric shapes—eyes, organs, symbols, ray bursts, mythic half-formed creatures. Curves bend out of shape, pulled and violated. Pure color struggles for survival, sometimes reappearing only when the artist scratches the surface, against the palette’s will-to-mud” (Philip Rylands, “Notes on Richard Pousette-Dart,” in Exh. Cat., Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection (and traveling), Richard Pousette-Dart, 2007, p. 13).
An artist with an insatiable thirst to learn and absorb, Pousette-Dart’s influences were vast yet monumental in importance. From Zen Buddhism, Taoism, T.S. Eliot, Friedrich Nietzsche, Native American Art, Cubism and of course, Surrealism, the artist sought to elevate the primacy of intuition by re-establishing communication with one’s own primordial unconscious being. Pousette-Dart, much like Jackson Pollock, gave ample credit to the critical influence of Surrealism and Cubism in his artistic development. Pousette-Dart’s own philiosophy is echoed in a text written by Pollock for the February 1944 issue of Arts & Architecure where he pays homage to those European artists: “They bring with them an understanding of the problem of modern painting. I am particularly impressed with their concept of the source of art being the unconscious” (Jackson Pollock, “Jackson Pollock: A Questionnaire,” Arts and Architecture 61, No. 2, February 1944, p. 14). Indeed, Composition Number 1 radiates with a mysticism that does not just utilize the unconscious as its source, but actively seems to reach and explore it on the canvas’s surface.
The early 1940s are of paramount significance to the artist’s oeuvre. In these seminal years, Pousette-Dart created some of the most groundbreaking works by any artist at this period, abandoning representative figuration for total abstraction. Just prior to this dramatic shift, he experimented with cutting simplified, amorphous shapes out of thick sheet metal that resembled the Pre-Columbian and Native American art and objects he had seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These brasses were first debuted at Willard Gallery in 1943 in a solo-exhibition of works by the artist entitled Forms in Brass. The exhibition, Pousette-Dart’s first with the gallery, also featured Composition Number 1 as the only painting in the show, further demonstrating how its biomorphic interpretations of teardrops, ellipses and totems seemed to be derived from these small sculptures. The inclusion of Composition Number 1 in the landmark 1943 Forms in Brass exhibition is a clear testament to the work’s importance as one of the first Abstract Expressionist paintings that featured an all-over composition and notions of the artist’s inner psyche. Paul Kruty elaborates: "As Pousette-Dart's ambition and accomplishment grew, so did the size of his canvases. The years 1942 and 1943 saw the creation of Composition Number 1 [the present work], Fugue Number 2 [Museum of Modern Art, New York] and Symphony Number 1, The Transcendental [The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]. The overpainting on these three has produced a crust of thick impasto. Edges are blurred. Colors, intense in places, recede between the dominant black and white. The thick black bars, spirals and curves of Composition Number 1 define a Tinguely-like cosmic machine, enriched with saturated blues and greens and sharp, red highlights. With its slowly moving great 'commas,' derived from the skull form; its myriad diamonds, spirals, beats and wings; and its intersecting grids and circles holding these elements fast—the whole overdrawn with shimmering white lines—[these paintings] seem to encompass the world" (Paul Kruty, "Richard Pousette-Dart, Paintings 1939-1985," in Exh. Cat., Fort Lauderdale, Museum of Art, Transcending Abstraction: Richard Pousette-Dart, Paintings 1939-1985, 1986, p. 27). A painter’s equivalent to a masterful symphony with bold, resplendent crescendos and introspective diminuendos, Composition Number 1 is a true artistic achievement with its dense, built-up surfaces of pigment and a graphic vibrancy that challenges the notions of its own two-dimensionality.
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