Richard Pousette-Dart, Abstract Expressionist


Richard Pousette-Dart, 76, a painter who belonged to the first generation of Abstract Expressionists, which helped catapult American art onto the world stage in the late 1940s, died of complications from colon cancer Sunday at his apartment in Manhattan.

Mr. Pousette-Dart had been linked since the 1940s with New York School artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning (and appeared with them in a famous 1951 Life magazine photograph, which labeled the group "The Irascibles"). But he was always a distinctive and solitary figure.

While his early work shared the Abstract Expressionists' predilections for pictographic and totemic forms and for gestural brush strokes, as a painter and as a person he conveyed nothing of their chest-thumping self-importance.

His energy was contained and reflective, more along the lines of Mark Tobey, among fellow members of the New York School, than of Mr. Pollock.

In recent decades, he produced shimmering, brilliantly colored paintings whose concentrated areas of light held a mystical significance for him and whose impact was meditative and poetic. These works were executed with refinement and the painstaking, almost finicky craftsmanship that distinguished his art.

Partly because his relationship to the Abstract Expressionists was difficult to define, he tended to receive respectful but comparatively modest notice from critics and historians.

He was the subject of retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1963 and 1974, and at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1990. But it was characteristic of his status that the Museum of Modern Art organized a traveling exhibition of his paintings in 1969 but did not show it in New York.

Mr. Pousette-Dart was born in 1916 in St. Paul, Minn. His father was a painter and writer on art, his mother a poet. After a year at Bard College in 1936, he left school to devote himself to art, becoming an assistant to Paul Manship, the Art Deco sculptor, in 1937, and producing a series of brass sculptures.

In 1941, he had his first one-man show in New York at the Artists Gallery. And two years later he exhibited at the Willard Gallery, which also represented Mr. Tobey and the sculptor David Smith.

The first occasion when he was publicly associated with the group that became known as the New York School was in the 1944 spring salon at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery, Art of This Century, where his work was presented with paintings by William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, Mr. Pollock and others. Mr. Pousette-Dart had a solo show at Guggenheim's gallery in 1947, and a year later joined Betty Parsons' gallery, then the leading venue for advanced American art.

In 1949 he exhibited for the first time both at the Museum of Modern Art, in its "Contemporary American Painters" survey, and at the Whitney Annual exhibition, in which he was to appear regularly.

The Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum were among the institutions that acquired his paintings. The Indianapolis Museum commissioned him to do a bronze door for a new wing in 1990, to coincide with the retrospective it was organizing, which traveled to Detroit, Columbus, Ga., and Washington. In his last years, Mr. Pousette-Dart exhibited at the ACA Galleries in Manhattan.

Although not didactic by temperament, during much of his career, he also taught art, first at Columbia University, then at Sarah Lawrence College and at Bard, and from 1980 until his death, at the Art Students League in Manhattan. Throughout his life he also took photographs.

In 1938, Mr. Pousette-Dart was married briefly twice. Five years later he met Evelyn Gracey, whom he married in 1946. The couple left New York City for Sloatsburg, N.Y., in 1951, and moved in 1958 to Suffern, N.Y.

Mr. Pousette-Dart's distance from Manhattan (where he maintained a small apartment) seems to have contributed to the perception of him as an outsider among New York School painters. At the same time, his art increasingly diverged from Abstract Expressionism, reflecting his idiosyncratic feelings about nature.

NTC He is survived by his wife; a daughter, Joanna, a painter, and a son, Jonathan, a musician, both of New York City.

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