A recent interview with the Zen koan-like and enigmatic artist Larry Poons can be read in its entirety on Robert Ayers’ excellent blog, A sky filled with Shooting Stars. Poons has a show of new work up in Chelsea, and it is quite a departure from earlier “dot” paintings.

Larry Poons

Here is a sample of the quality of the exchange between Poons and Ayers:

Poons: Paintings are mistakes. You put a mark on a canvas, and it’s a mistake. Of course it’s a mistake, otherwise it would be wonderful, because it would be finished. But it’s not. After maybe 50 or 60,000 mistakes, you give up. Like Leonardo said, “Works of art aren’t finished, they’re abandoned.” That’s absolutely true, art is never finished. People say, “Oh, that’s a nice romantic thing to say.” But it’s not romantic. It’s like saying that physics can be finished. Real art is never finished. With applied art at least you can say, “OK. You’ve learnt this lesson.” Illustration doesn’t even get into this no-man’s land. But that’s the only place that art lives, if it’s any good.

Ayers: Can you explain that a little further?

Poons: It’s hard to explain. It’s the difference between William Butler Yeats and everybody else! You don’t know why, but holy mackerel, it’s there! You sense it. Very quickly you reach a wall of impenetrability. It’s like you’re reading words and there’s nothing there. You can’t penetrate it. And then you do – not all at once, but maybe in a week, or a year, or ten years, and when you do, when it finally pours over you, it’s just like anything else in art that you are really moved by. When stuff resonates with you, then you’ve got a Bach or a Schuman or a Brahms. You’ve got one of them.

Ayers: OK, but you’re referring to poetry and music. How does this work in painting?

Poons:When you’re painting, then you’ve got nothing to paint until there’s something there, that first mistake. But once you see something – you’ll see a flow or a shape – ­then that’s what you’re painting, and that’s where paintings come from. And you just try to make them real. And they’re real when they look like they’ve been done all at once. When something happens so that everything that I’ve been looking at in the painting becomes something else very different. All of a sudden little things are visible, things that were invisible before, and the painting doesn’t look like it has a beginning or an end. Where did Cézanne begin a painting? Where did Titian start? You can’t tell. You just don’t see it. But in paintings that don’t arrive at this “colored moment,” you can always tell.

Ayers: Yes. But if art is never finished, how can we tell whether it’s any good or not?

Poons:The art that we’re talking about is never finished. It can’t be. It isn’t in its nature. When things are finished isn’t a willful thing. Is a Mondrian finished? No. But is a [Fritz] Glarner? Yeah. That’s why a Mondrian’s better. And Mondrian or Glarner, they have no control over this. Beethoven had no control over being that good. Impossible. It wasn’t his fault he was that good. And it wasn’t Pollock’s fault that he was that wonderful. So if somebody says, “Oh, that’s good!” you can’t get a swelled head because you know that if perchance it is any good, that’s almost the way it is – it’s by chance!

I read this exchange and knew immediately what Poons was talking about. Perhaps I’m too gun shy at the idea of speaking so frankly about a process that is a bit like describing the experience of hallucinogenics to someone who hasn’t ever imbibed. Poons talks so nakedly about the inner conversations that go on, most of them with entities that are part of you and yet not part of not you. It’s a mystery, the whole thing, and I’ve been less inclined to try to embody it as openly as he does here.

So of course this delighted me.


I’d love to see the show. It is at the Danese Gallery in New York and runs through March 14.

Thanks to Riki Moss for sending this link to me. Great find, Riki.