Born: June 8, 1916 | Saint Paul, Minnesota
Died: October 25, 1992 (age 76) | New York City
Richard Pousette-Dart was an American artist who worked in different mediums including painting, sculpture and photography. He was part of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism the late 1940’s.
Richard Pousette-Dart was born in St Paul, Minnesota though his parents soon relocated the family to Valhalla, New York. Pousette-Dart grew up in a very artistic family. His mother was a poet and musician and his father was an art director, visual artist, teacher and art writer. He was encouraged to pursue art at a very early age attending Scarborough School (a private school in Scarborough-on-Hudson) and later Bard College. Pousette-Dart left Bard, however, after only 1 semester for New York City to pursue his career as an artist.
Pousette-Dart soon found work as an apprentice to sculptor Paul Manship and also as a secretary in Lynn T. Morgan’s photo retouching studio. This offered Pousette-Dart an early training in hand-retouching and photo-manipulation that would become part of his photography style. He became fascinated with the technical makeup of the negative later stating:
All form is made up of so many points of light and everything has a molecular structure. Photography was how I got to the point… I’m concerned with form and the nature of light, and I find that I can achieve variations in form through many touches of the brush in a way that I can’t with a single stroke…”
This influenced not only his photography work, but also was a key component of his painting style using a layering technique of dabbing pigments.
In 1941, Pousette-Dart exhibited a one man show at the Artists Gallery in New York which was followed by the MoMA’s acquisition of his 1940 piece, Desert. Several key works came from this period including Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental. This was an unusually large sized mural piece that influenced several other key works of the period including Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943). These years were prolific and success led him to shows at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, 67 Gallery and in 1948 he joined the Betty Parson’s Gallery. Betty Parson’s Gallery included many influential painters such as Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock who would eventually shape what we know today as the New York school of Abstract Expressionism.
By the mid 1940’s, Pousette-Dart was also experimenting heavily in fine-art photography. His photographic output includes nature studies and a highly unique style of portraiture.
The November exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in 1948 was of Pousette-Dart’s solo photography entitled Brasses and Photographs. The exhibition featured portraits of fellow artists using multiple exposures as a layering technique that creates a sense of abstract appropriate of the subjects. The show included portraits of Mark Rothko, Theodoros Stamos, Barnett Newman, Robert Flaherty, violinist Sasha Schneider and even Betty Parsons herself.
This was a key exhibition for photography in the late 1940’s and proved to be quite a success considering its unique nature of abstraction. Robert Flaherty was impressed and invited Pousette-Dart to become part of a cinematic interpretation of Around The World In 80 Days. Sadly the project was never realized.
In 1953, Photography magazine hosted their International Picture Contest. Pousette-Dart was awarded third prize for his image, Joanna with Cat. This lead to numerous offers for commercial assignments. Most of these were turned down as Pousette-Dart was highly selective towards art-based work.
Pousette-Dart eventually moved his family to Suffern, NY where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life. Spending the greater part of these years concentrating on painted works, he did continue to photograph friends and family. In 1975 he was part of the Zabriskie Gallery exhibition Artists by Artists – which featured photographs by sculptors and painters such as Brancusi and Man Ray.
I feel everything is a wonderful photographic subject if one has the patience, perseverance and experience to reveal it in its own way. Love is the eye of photography”
Richard Pousette-Dart met Saul Leiter in 1946. Saul became close friends with Richard and his wife Evelyn and they became very close on a personal and artistic level. As Saul was initially a painter with an interest in photography, Pousette-Dart offered to lend Saul a Leica which he accepted. It was through the encouragement of Richard and W. Eugene Smith that Saul went on to develop his talents as a photographer.
As mentioned in the Jane Livingston forward to Saul Leiter: Early Black and White, Leiter had a deep affinity for Pousette-Dart’s photography work. At the time of their meeting, Pousette-Dart was experimenting with photography “in the form of softly printed, dramatically scaled blowups, taking as his inspiration the work of Julia Margaret Cameron.”
The pictorialist influence is quite interesting emerging from Pousette-Dart’s photographs. The techniques of manipulation are certainly a major part of Pousette-Dart’s aesthetic. The irony is that this influence is seen in the work of a progressive, New York abstract artist. Paul Strand’s modernist approach is quite the opposite, offering the idea of “straight photography” as a split from the Pictorialist techniques that came before. Pousette-Dart brought the ability to incorporate this into a style which was still quite progressive.
Absence/Presence: Richard Pousette-Dart as Photographer