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Pousette-Dart, Richard

The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists

Ann Lee Morgan

Pousette-Dart, Richard (1916–92). Painter, sculptor, and photographer. 

Unique among significant abstract expressionists in his overt embrace of a spiritual dimension within his art, he remained always somewhat apart from others in the movement. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, he spent his early years in Valhalla, north of New York. Essentially self-taught as a painter, he attended Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, for a year. His early mélange of cubist space with elements of organic surrealism had coalesced by the time he moved to New York. There, in 1937 he became an assistant to Paul Manship, an old friend of his father’s. Particularly attuned to sources in American Indian art, in thickly painted webs of symbols and abstract signs he shared the nascent abstract expressionists 1940s quest for universalizing allusions to the primal and the unconscious. Through the 1950s, forms submerged in layers of paint became increasingly indeterminate. By the 1960s he had purged representation entirely, activating his canvases with pulsing, radiantly hued surfaces that offer hovering materializations of mystical states. Employing a painstakingly meticulous technique, he typically assembled these transcendental works from a myriad of dotted brushstrokes. Yet his sensitively varied work always maintained a fresh poetry reflecting devotion to the solitary act of painting and indifference to art world opinion. In later years he also combined sculptural elements and found objects into painted reliefs. In addition, throughout his life, he used photography to portray his friends and probe patterns found in nature. He died in the New York apartment he had maintained while living principally in the Hudson River Valley, at Sloatsburg from 1951 to 1958 and then in nearby Suffern. His father, Nathaniel Pousette-Dart (1886–1965), an art writer and painter, was born Nathaniel Pousette in St. Paul but hyphenated his name upon marriage. Following early training in St. Paul, he studied in New York with Robert Henri and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with Thomas Anshutz. He had visited Europe twice before his return to St. Paul in 1912. Once again in New York three years later, he soon became a successful graphic designer, instrumental in the introduction of modern art into magazine advertising. His mildly expressionistic landscapes and figural works reveal an admiration for van Gogh, Cézanne, El Greco, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Besides American Painting Today (1956), his books include monographs on Childe Hassam (1922), Robert Henri (1922), Abbott H. Thayer (1923), Winslow Homer (1923), John Singer Sargent (1924), and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1924). He died in Valhalla, New York, where he had made his home for some forty-five years. Richard’s daughter, abstract painter Joanna Pousette-Dart (1947– ), lives in New York. Born there, she graduated from Vermont’s Bennington College in 1968. In the 1970s she investigated relationships between gridded structure and color but adopted a freer and more painterly approach during the following decade. In her recent buoyant work, flat color areas deployed on shaped canvases evoke luminous landscape spaces.