“People think I’m dead,” Larry Poons says, without irony. At age 80, he’s explaining his obscurity to filmmaker Nathanial Kahn while daubing colour onto a mammoth work-in-progress — un-stretched canvas draped ceiling-to-floor in a circle around him. Larry’s wizened face, hobo duds and ramshackle studio in rural, upstate New York describe an archetype of monetary irreverence. He and Kahn are in the midst of shooting The Price of Everything, Kahn’s documentary about the skyrocketing contemporary art market. Poons has been cast as The Purist.
Larry Poons was born in 1937 and studied and painted in New York City alongside Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg. They spent the 1960s showing at the Green Gallery and Leo Castelli Gallery, appearing in Andy Warhol’s films about the downtown scene. When Larry veered from his popular, vibrating dot paintings towards more lyrical expressionist work, a sputter in sales occurred and he fell out of favour with his dealers. Meanwhile, his contemporaries either burned themselves into permanent fame by dying, or stayed the course with the styles that had put them on the map in the first place.
As much as Kahn tries to build a myth around Larry as a pauper with a dead career, Larry has actually continued to exhibit steadily since the ’60s, building an oeuvre of defiant experimentation and a steady vision in colour work, while remaining a solo craftsman. And while his paintings may not have managed to reach the obscene, current monetary heights of his contemporaries, Larry seems okay with his route. “A failed painting is better than one that’s just plain bad,” he says. “The failed painting is one that could have been great.”
PS: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” (Oscar Wilde, in his play Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892)
Esoterica: At peak cynicism during The Price of Everything, an art critic reveals that Larry is on the precipice of a comeback, hinting, like a stockbroker, that the market is hungry for a commodity that’s still undervalued. Larry, maintaining his obliviousness to such vulgarity, agrees to let dealer Dennis Yares select paintings for a solo show at his midtown gallery. “Art and money have no intrinsic hookup at all,” exclaims Larry, wide-eyed and covered in paint. Later, at his opening, his room-sized canvases, now stretched and triumphant, pulse with life and authenticity.
“There’s something always instinctively visually right about nature. There’s no difference, to my eye, between looking at a great painting and looking at nature. Because painting, when it’s great, has the same immutable rightness, unquestioned rightness, about it.” (Larry Poons)
Nathaniel Kahn’s The Price of Everything is available for streaming on HBO.
“If you think you know where you’re going to be 10 years from now, that’s where you’re at now. You’re just putting it off.” (Larry Poons)
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