The price is everything


Dear Artist,

“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.


“Turned His Head” 2017
acrylic on canvas
by Larry Poons (b.1937)

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.


“Spirits in Ritual” 2010
acrylic on canvas
by Larry Poons

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.”


“Bordertown” 1972
oil on canvas
by Larry Poons



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.


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“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)



  1. Much as I admire Larry Poons I have to say that I disagree with his assessment that painting is only about color. Composition is the architecture of the canvas. Concept is the soul of the canvas. Just color is not everything.


    To Larry, I have to say that prices are all about marketing. Quality is a much different thing. Creative minds must enjoy creating works that surprises. The artist –and who knows ? a surprised buyer ?

  3. Harry. Weisburd on

    What is the point of this article? POON’s was not the only artist to go into obscurity with a fad art movement generated by hype of NewYork Art world This one only lasted. Only one year. No different than fashion designer Dior. Lifting skirt hems. Up. The. “New Look”. !! Color Field. After image painting. Lasted but. One Year. How about other color field artists that created. Art Foundatiions ?? One Foundation ‘s manager caught stealing. Millions of dollars. From the foundation – ART. NEWS. magazine.

    • Q: What is the point of this article? A: For me, the point is quite simply that untill I read this I had never heard of Larry Poons. Consequently, I have yet to see the film that is mentioned. Regardless of what I might think of the paintings, I’ve been exposed to work I was unaware of and there’s a film I’m genuinely interested in seeing. Having directed a university production of Lady Windermere’s Fan and having played Oscar Wilde in a production of Tom Eyen’s Sarah B. Divine in the 1970’s, on this wintery day my horizons have been unexpectedly broadened. The article made a point. For me.

    • Barbara Belyea on

      Let’s agree on one fact: for the “New Look” hems went down, not up. For the rest, let’s agree on what is important — art markets or art? The alternative presented itself during the nineteenth century, when new forms of representation (e.g. photography) were invented and the social position/function of the artist changed. See Pierre Bourdieu’s study of this evolution. Poons expresses the studied indifference of the displaced artist. It’s a pose, but it shuffles the priorities into the right order.
      IMHO, far from having no point this article is brilliant in nailing the big relationships: artist to public, and artist/art to the work to be done, the purpose of it all. Poons’ comment on the rightness of art as coincident with the rightness of nature defines what great art is. I take Poons’ term “art” to be far more comprehensive than painting. Think of Flaubert’s “mot juste”: the right word, the right phrase, the word and phrase that seem natural, inevitable, the only choice possible. Yet there has been a long process of selection: the writer has reviewed all the possibilities and has made, over and over again, choices that build a powerful, beautiful whole.

  4. Julie Christensen Rackley on

    As an unknown and emerging painter this article was of immense interest to me. Thanks for exposing me to a painter I was unaware of and introducing me to a movie I look forward to seeing.

  5. I have been reading about the documentary. Art will draw all kinds of pro and con comments.
    We all have the power to choose what we want to know or not. As long as I have bread and shelter
    as a working class artist I am grateful. More power to any artist that can survive and thrive in art life.

  6. I have much love and respect, for the independent abstract artist, who creates with unbowed head, that which they will.
    And cares not, about weather it is in fashion, or earns them great sums of money.
    Dave F.

  7. I totally enjoyed knowing more about this artist. I knew the name- but knew very little about the person. I will look for the documentary film now. I think the paintings you showed gave me the sense of an artist who is made wise by his own path, … that is his truth. I enjoyed feeling them, and their emotion. And, I really thought the last photo of Larry Poons in the snow, was wonderful. Loved it!
    Am I easily impressed? Hmmm…. I just related, I suppose….I also enjoy the journey of creating and bringing forth…a great adventure. I am happiest when painting.

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