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Larry Poons
Larry PoonsPhotography Jason Mandella

Life lessons from radical and uncompromising artist Larry Poons

We explore the ethos and attitude of one of America’s greatest, most inimitable painters and the hero of art doc The Price of Everything

The moral obligation of art is a much-contested debate but, in an ideal world, we want to think of artists as truth-tellers and look to art not only to entertain but to elevate our thinking and elucidate (or crucially complicate) the world around us in stimulating ways. While the archetype of the “poor suffering artist” is reductive and detrimental, it’s also depressing to be reminded of the extent to which the art world is largely guided by the same principles as any other marketplace, where works of art are routinely and nauseatingly referred to as “luxury commodities”. Yet there remain figures who have navigated this treacherous terrain without forfeiting their artistic integrity; for whom the urgency of making art exists within them irrespective of acquiring wealth. Larry Poons is one such artist. 

Emerging from the incendiary New York art scene in the early 1960s, Poons was a rising star moving among NYC’s now-legendary cultural milieu. A regular at Max’s Kansas City, featured as a face in Andy Warhol’s 1967 screenprint Portrait of the Artists, and exhibited alongside Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, he was feted as one of the darlings of the NYC scene in those seminal decades of the city’s history.   

While the critics blew hot and cold, Poons remained indifferent, continually pushing the boundaries of painting and restlessly exploring new territory regardless of the market and its fluctuating partiality. Now in his 80s, he emerged in 2018 as the hero of Nathaniel Khan’s documentary The Price of Everything, providing a poignant and uplifting antidote to the parallel narrative of Jeff Koons and his multi-million dollar art laboratory. 

While exposing the cynicism of the blue-chip art world, Khan’s film also reminded us that there’s an alternative universe of artists and image-makers who haven’t been totally corrupted by the demands of commerce. Larry Poons has remained an inhabitant of this purer, more idealistic world existing beyond the insidious pressures of capitalism. 

Take a look at the gallery above for some of the artworks on display at his celebrated recent exhibition at London’s Almine Rech while, below, we draw on Larry Poons’ life and work to consider some valuable life lessons from this extraordinary artist.


A rising star on the early 60s New York art scene, Poons had his first solo show in 1963 at the Green Gallery – the West 57th Street gallery also remembered for giving early exposure to the likes of Yayoi Kusama, sculptor Donald Judd, and pop artist George Segal. 

He first garnered attention for his “Dots” paintings – optical arrangements of dots and ellipses pulsating with colour and floating against striking monochromatic backgrounds. The paintings were created according to a predetermined set of mathematical rules which dictated the composition, eliminating the artist’s input from the formal elements of the artwork. 

By establishing these rules alongside his friend and fellow artist Frank Stella, Poons was experimenting with a new approach to the medium that deviated from the received wisdom of what had gone before. His grid-based Dot works mark a radical development in the history of painting.

During this time, Poons was also pushing the boundaries and reinventing the rules in another creative realm. Having initially been drawn to music, he’d started out studying composition at the New England Conservatory of Music with the intention of becoming a professional musician but pivoted towards making art in 1959 after seeing an exhibition of Barnett Newman’s work in New York. 

In the early years of his initial experiments on the canvas, he was also playing the guitar in The Druds – a proto-conceptual, avant-garde noise-rock band founded by Andy Warhol. The short-lived band was comprised of members of the art community and featured Walter de Maria on drums, LaMonte Young on saxophone, and Patty Mucha as the lead singer, with lyrics contributed by Jasper Johns and, on occasion, Warhol himself (who also made the odd cameo on vocals).  


By the 1970s, Poons’ connection with the paint itself had become even more physical. Abandoning his previous geometric paintings, he began instead to hurl, splash, and pour paint onto the surface of the canvas. 

As his process evolved to new levels of physicality and became more sculptural, he began embedding materials such as rubber, foam, paper, and rope into the paint, creating a surface that reaches beyond the plane of the canvas and challenges the notion of what a painting can be. 

Although he eventually returned to his paintbrush in the 1990s, his relationship with paint remains incredibly tactile. The Price of Everything shows Poons in his studio, every surface dripping with paint, his overalls splattered in paint, spooning his brightly coloured paint onto his palette with his hands. 


Poons regards great art in the same way he appreciates nature. In The Price of Everything we see him walking through snow-bound upstate New York, his breath mingling with the icy fog as he heads to his studio. He’s at home. And his connection with the natural world is tangible in the organic feel of his later paintings; in their tactile, irregular surfaces and their contrasting vivid and muted colours. 

“There's something always instinctively visually right about nature,” he has said. “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.”

His recent show at London's Almine Rech features works selected from across his many decades of painting, alongside new work created within the last year, including large-scale colour abstracts radiant with all the many and varied hues of the natural world. 


Having abandoned his successful op-art Dot series for this looser, more painterly style of abstract art, the winds of favour changed and Poons found himself somewhat sidelined. He “slipped off the ledge”, explains art collector Stefan Edlis in The Price of Everything

Capricious and unpredictable, the art world turned its back on Poons and this rising star found himself rapidly losing traction. Yet, five decades later, he remains indifferent. “I haven’t been isolated from the art world, it’s the art world that’s been isolated from me,” he reflected in an interview with The Art Newspaper. “Museums just want to play the latest hit songs, and they stopped playing my songs for a while.”

Emerging as the moral compass of Khan’s art world exposé, Poons’ narrative is a life-affirming counterpoint to that of Jeff Koons – the former Wall Street broker turned art superstar whose own story seems so much more a career than a calling.  

The Price of Everything shows Poons – with his distinctive unruly hair and his paint-splattered overalls – in rural upstate New York in his chaotic woodshed studio, wall-to-wall with artworks. By way of contrast, Koons’ studio is a clinical art factory where teams of neat technicians in pristine lab coats precisely follow his meticulous “systems”. 

One of the film’s most enduring and evocative scenes depicts Poons on the street in Manhattan, gazing wordlessly at a window display of Koons’ collaboration with Louis Vuitton – a spectacle of obscene luxury and excess.


“Art and money have no intrinsic hook up at all,” Poons explains in Khan’s film, contrary to what so much of the movie seems to believe. “It’s not like sports where your batting average is your batting average and that’s the bottom line.”

Despite receiving criticism for changing his painting style back in the 1960s, Poons has never kowtowed to popular opinion and his definition of success is unalloyed to the value the market places on his work. “There’s nothing wrong with business and there’s nothing wrong with art but they’re two separate things,” he told The Art Newspaper. “If you define success as being able to sell something to pay the rent, then that means you’re successful at paying your rent. It doesn’t mean that your art is any good or not.”

In the age-old battle between art and commerce, Poons remains steadfastly on the right side of history.

Larry Poons’ exhibition is showing at London’s Almine Rech Gallery until July 31, 2021