Racers: Larry Poons and Frank Stella
Loretta Howard Gallery
521 West 26th Street
January 11th- February 10th, 2018
MARK BLOCH, JAN. 2018
A crowded opening night. To enter the show, one must pass a slightly dizzying video with images of whirring motorcycles and cars zipping by as well as four colorful Frank Stella baseball caps just sitting there next to a small model car and a Larry Poons motorcycle jacket spread out like a welcoming banner that said, among other things, “Port Washington.” Poons grew up in nearby Great Neck, an affluent town just over the New York City border on Long Island Sound. The video shows Poons in that jacket looking like Robocop. It also showed him riding motorcycles and it showed Stella, at various ages, talking about why he has always liked to design images for the bodies of race cars.
A long, tall Poons work, Steeling Solo from 1999 was to the left of the door, a bit reminscent of the composition of Duchamp's Large Glass. A colorful print by Stella, one of two, an engraving called Estoril Five II (Circut Series) from 1982, was to the right as I entered the gallery. Deep reds, lines that looked like they were, or really were, embossed into the handmade paper they were printed on because they were “shadowed” by another line, creating the illusion I was travelling through a 3-D trough. This is part of Stella's “Circuit” series of work, his homages to the swirling figure eights and sixes and j's and g's and e's of specific race tracks he has visited. Across the room was the imposing Zolder, another part of his Circuit output, a gargantuan, two foot deep piece that is one of his classic 3-D constructions on metal.
The room was alive with color as well as talk of cars and bikes and Italian Futurists who liked to view the world at the then-blistering speed of 30 and 40 and 50 miles an hour close to the turn of the century— the turn from the 19th to the 20th, that is. “We say that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed.” said Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his famous manifesto in 1909.
When I made my way to the center of the crowded room and asked the animated Mr. Poons about his paintings here, he wasn't much interested in the Futurist Manifesto but said knowingly, “everything is 3-D.” Even thin layers of paint, to Poons, provide a third dimension. But the two large works of his being shown, next to and across from the big Stella work, have an atypical look for Poons' paintings and I was told by his wife they had once begun as ideas for sculptural works. Poons apparently had even considered collborating on them with a welder at one point. But in the end he pulled many of the raised surfaces he had created off of them and they became paintings, the medium he is so known for. But raised surfaces remain. Not just 3-D layers of paint but irregular, textural, rectangular chunks and curvy vectors of color that could be said to resemble guardrails or off-ramps.
The unusual shapes and thick lines casting shadows cascading across the surface and raising up from what might be a more typical Poons background, had they not been there at all, gave the impression overall of some kind of strange landscape, but this was a whimsical, fantasy landscape, as close as I have seen Poons get to representational art but still able to manifest only the likes of a cloudy candy store or an abstract cartoon seen in a dream. There is fuzzy, touchable, almost fiberglass material on one painting and on the other, that hung across from the Stella work that attempted to dominate the room, was an elongated “c” shaped protrusion that divided the field up in a shade of off-green that pulled and repelled simultantously.
Poons, who divides his time between painting and motorcycle racing, has been given special awards from the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association (AHRMA), including the 500 cc Hailwood Cup in 1998 and 2003, and also in 2003 the John & Ginny Demoisey Trophy for road racing couples, for the passion he shares with his wife Paula DeLuccia, also a painter. Poons still races a Matchless G50 and a Ducati 250.
Poons' work here called Wilma Lee Leary is named for an American bluegrass and country music entertainer. Leary, born in 1921, hit the charts with her partner, the fiddler “Stoney” Cooper in the late 1950s on Hickory Records with seven hits between 1956 and 1961 in the final era before rock'n'roll took over. The West Virginias-born singer died in 2011.
After beginning in the same period as Leary's bluegrass popularity, Poons, a legendary painter's painter in the years since, has kept things vibrant for decades, never stagnating as a fine artist, completely tuned into his materials, always trying something new. The pieces that introduced his work to the Art World in the early 60s rode the vibrations of the Op art movement, an intellectual, often mathematical and detached abstract style that surfaced after the of the personal, primal AbEx explosion of the 50s. The twenty-something Poons made his big splash with paintings punctuated with small pill-shapes, circles and ovals on vibrant backgrounds. But Op was too confining for the mercurial Poons, so, he left it in the dust when he headed for a version of post-Abstract Expressionism all his own at a time when Pop was coming into view among his contemporaries. Poons made wild and muscular, painterly and unhinged abstract works, thick with pigment and corporeality.
His barn is said to be crowded with automotive and motorcycle parts. Poons is even known for using an early Guggenheim grant to buy a Lamborghini. That was the time he began motorcycle racing, preferring a breed of bike that put all-out performance over everything else, the British “Café Racers" with hopped up engines on a stripped down chassis. This fervor has continued to this day, with Poons driving cross-country like a nomad, without an elaborate crew or corporate sponsorship, to motorcycle road racing competitions like the Daytona International Speedway in Florida. Poons has won national titles in his division and has frequently placed among the top performers over the years.
“BMW was trying to be more prominent at Le Mans, which at the time was dominated by Porsche,” Frank Stella told Calvin Tompkins for a New Yorker article in 2009 about a car exterior he had designed. “So they built a very powerful car and it shot out front at the start. Of course, after an hour or so it was no longer in front, but the news photos of the start went all over the world, and the black-and-white design reproduced great.”
Indeed, the black-and-white, graph-paper-patterned BMW 3.0 CSL stole the show in the 1976 twenty-four-hour world famous Le Mans contest.
That was Stella's initial foray into race car embellishment with his unique style. The BMW Art Car Project was initiated by the French driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain, who had a vision of an artist creating a “canvas" on an automobile. In 1975, Poulain commissioned his friend Alexander Calder to paint the first BMW Art Car. After Calder's work, many other renowned artists throughout the world have created BMW Art Cars, including Stella. To date, a total of 17 BMW Art Cars have been created by the likes of David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol.
BMW gave Stella many cars in the following years “and finally I learned to drive better. I also drove some Ferraris,” he said. He even gave one of the BMWs to his wife, Harriet. Today they drive an Audi station wagon to their home in upstate New York and his studio, in Newburgh on the Hudson River. He used to speed on the highways in the any powerful car he could get his hands on but the eighty one year old promised, “No, no, I’m very good now,” to Tompkins.
“It’s the racing part that’s interesting,” Stella said. “That car I did was a nice introduction to racing, and a relief from the art world.”
Larry Poons and Frank Stella met when they were both showing at the Leo Castelli gallery in the 1960s and have retained lifelong friendship “built on mutual respect and a shared sensibility that includes risk-taking and intuition," according to gallerist Loretta Howard who has paired these two artists for the first time in an exhibition; two artists whose works bear no pictorial illusions or metaphysical testimonials.
Stella moved to New York in 1958 and joined the dealer Castelli's roster of artists in '59. Reacting against the expressive use of paint by the AbEx group, Stella was drawn by the flatness of Barnett Newman's work and Jasper John's pre-Pop target paintings. He then followed suit empasizing the picture-as-object rather than as a representation of something else.
He married Barbara Rose, later a well-known art critic, and his Irregular Polygon canvases and Protractor series eventually championed the concept of the shaped canvas. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a retrospective of Stella’s work in 1970, he was the youngest artist to receive one.
He called his paintings “maximalist” for their sculptural qualities as a contrast to the pared-down trends of the 70s with elements of collage and pieces of canvas being pasted onto plywood as his work became more three-dimensional and gradually evolved into large, free-standing works on aluminum and other metallic surfaces with distinctively scrawled Day-Glo colors in the decades that followed. A progression toward mechanization, that would have thilled the Futurists, continues today with industrial metal cutters, digital technologies and teams of assistants playing a part in his constructions.
Stella owns a beautiful Indy racecar that is parked in his studio. Larry Poons is still tinkering with his single cylinder Ducati Mark 3 and Seely Condor bikes. A “shared interest in nonconformity also runs deep,” Loretta Howard says.
There is an interesting relationship between both artists' participation in the world of vehicles—strongly rooted in the physical world of driving which presumably brings alive something in their inner emotional world—and their respective art works with no links to story-telling or framing a scene as painters have attempted for centuries. Stella once said that a picture was “a flat surface with paint on it - nothing more," echoing Poons' sentiment as he motioned to his unique 1999 painting that “everything is 3-D.”
As Stella said about his first BMW design, “It’s a paint job, one way or another. The idea for mine was that it’s from a drawing on graph paper... and adapting the drawing to the racing car’s forms is interesting. Theoretically it’s like painting on a shaped canvas.”
On the floor of the crowded gallery near a large Poons work is a small child's chair made from a road sign and covered in paint, a nice touch, reminiscent, simultaneously, of an anonymous road somewhere, a playful imagination and the intense activity of an artist's studio. But then I can imagine the artist sitting down on it and looking, considering some brush strokes just laid down and taking it all in—while sitting completely still. WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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