Richard Pousette-Dart was born on June 8, 1916 to educated, artistically-inclined parents in St. Paul, Minnesota. The family soon moved to Valhalla, New York, where Pousette-Dart spent most of his childhood. His father, Nathaniel Pousette, was an artist, collector, and writer, and his mother, Flora Dart, a musician, pianist, and poet. His early interests in art and music were strongly encouraged by his parents.
Before turning to painting, Pousette-Dart worked with bronze sculpture, and his earliest works are in that medium. He spent a year at Bard College in the 1930s before moving to New York City, where he worked with the sculptor Paul Manship as an assistant. In Manhattan, his ideas about art were influenced by visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History. He was particularly impressed by the Byzantine period and the work of Vincent van Gogh. In addition, an early job as a secretary in a photography studio, where he completed color retouchings, is often cited as an influence on the dotted, pointillist style he developed later in his paintings.
Pousette-Dart's paintings in the late 1930s and early 1940s share in the primitive, mythic quality evoked in the early work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and other New York painters. Pousette-Dart mined a variety of sources, from Eastern philosophy and Jungian psychology to the totemic forms of Oceanic and Native Art, to develop these themes. The resulting paintings feature birds, bull heads, egg shapes, and other animal forms, often rimmed with the artist's distinctive black contour line, and suggesting sacrifice, ancient rite, or primitive spirituality. Like many of his Abstract Expressionist peers, his early work shows a great debt to Pablo Picasso, with its animal imagery and its tension between recognizable forms and abstracted motifs.
Between 1941 and 1942, Pousette-Dart painted what many consider to be the first grand-scale work in Abstract Expressionism, Symphony No.1, The Transcendental. Several of his large-scale works from this period have a dark tenor, as in Crucifixion, Comprehension of the Atom (1944), where he grapples with the themes of nuclear war and human suffering. Extremely attuned to formal issues, Pousette-Dart developed his pantheon of animal forms into an extensive array of squiggles, triangles, ovaloids, and cell-like shapes, a vocabulary that would come to characterize his organic, gestural dynamism for years to come. During this generative period in New York, Pousette-Dart showed at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery and at the Betty Parsons Gallery.
Pousette-Dart's work became increasingly painterly in the 1940s and 1950s, assuming a rougher, heavier mark. In 1951, despite his growing success and the newly recognized cache of the New York art scene, Pousette-Dart left Manhattan with his wife Evelyn Gracey for Sloatsburg and then Suffern, both in Rockland County, New York. In his studio upstate, he continued on his artistic journey, producing work that was increasingly spiritual in nature. Many of the abstracted figural motifs began to give way to designs in pure color, texture, and form. His brightly colored works from the period have been likened to mosaics and stained-glass windows, with their vertical streams of jewel-like color. In the 1960s, Pousette-Dart turned increasingly to a pointillist approach, layering dabs or dots of paint over one another to create spreading, pulsing fields of color.
Pousette-Dart painted into his seventies, utilizing and modifying approaches from his stylistic arsenal of pointillism, geometry, gesture, and inscribed text. In his journal writings, Pousette-Dart attached particular thematic meanings to the 'square of matter' and the 'circle of spirit,' notions that become especially apparent in his work of the 1980s and 1990s. Here, the angst and dynamism of some of his earlier work has settled into a more static harmony, with circles, ovals, and meanders arranged as balanced meditations on matter, spirit, and universal form. Pousette-Dart died in Suffern, NY, at the age of 76.
While famous in his day, Pousette-Dart's legacy has faded more than that of some of his Abstract Expressionist peers. This is explained in part by the independent quality of his work, being neither 'expressionist' nor fully 'abstract,' it tends to be left out of canonical accounts of the New York School. Pousette-Dart also lacked the notoriety and brooding mien of other contemporaries. He was a vegetarian and spiritualist who avoided alcohol and depression, and thus does not fit the stereotype of the suffering New York painter that others embodied.
There is no doubt, however, that his work influenced other developing artists of his day, especially in his abstraction of primitive scenes and the figures and the color-centric approach of his pointillist works. In recent years, Pousette-Dart's posthumous reputation has grown, with retrospectives at The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Pousette-Dart's daughter, Joanna Pousette-Dart, and a grandson, Chris Pousette-Dart, are both contemporary abstract artists.