Late Career Artists: 
Changing Course—or Not

Larry Poons, Jessica’s Hartford

Loretta Howard Gallery
Larry Poons, Jessica’s Hartford
There is much to ponder about creative shifts in late-career artmaking.

There is much to ponder about creative shifts in late-career artmaking.

Gladys Triana

Gladys Triana, Out of the Box, 1976.

Evolution and adaptability have driven the work of the eighty-three year old Cuban-American painter Gladys Triana.

In his diaristic book on Willem de Kooning, Reflections in the Studio, Edvard Lieber wrote:

“In the late 1980s hyperactive forms began to appear in his paintings. ‘I’m back to a full palette with off-toned colors,’ de Kooning remarked. ‘Before it was about knowing what I didn’t know. Now it’s about not knowing that I know.’”

There is much to ponder about creative shifts in late-career artmaking. It’s a subject that has always fascinated scholars and audiences in all the arts because we usually expect painters, like musicians and poets, to grow more mellow or lyrical with advanced age.

Think of de Kooning’s angry women or architectural landscapes yielding to his famously thinned-out gestural paintings in soft pinks and greens and blues. De Kooning was in the throes of dementia, and we wonder what was intentional and what was instinctive—even unconscious—in his production. And then, of course, we wonder if this even matters or should be allowed to influence how an audience perceives the work.

While late works are often the product of unfiltered expression or nostalgia—and sometimes of arthritic hands and distracted minds—they may also reflect a conscious desire to pare down production to less cluttered expression and clarified thoughts as they dispose of trial-and-error detritus. There are also factors outside of the artist’s control, such as the lure of new materials, the loss of discontinued ones, and the threat of hazardous substances. In the end, we wonder what developments result from intention and what from adaptation.

Perhaps, what seems like shifts in an artist’s style naturally draw from the same pools of interest, ability, and talent as earlier, “signature” works. They may be a continuation, a deviation from, or a return, expansion, and replay of that output.

Take Larry—then Lawrence—Poons, who abandoned his very popular and lucrative Op (Optical) art dots in primary colors in order to launch into unrecognizably gestural Abstract Expressionism, alienating many critics and collectors. Asked by The Artnewspaper in 2018 what had inspired his change in style, he responded,

“It depends on what you mean by inspiration. Painting in itself is self-generating. Everything affects us as long as we’re alive and inspiration is a very catch-all, comic-book word. You’re not the same person you were when you were eight years old and learning arithmetic. … Much like Leonardo da Vinci said, a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Philip Guston did famously depart from his representational art to produce shockingly jewel-toned Abstract Expressionistic works, which he then deserted for narrative, cartoonish, and political paintings. These shifts were dramatic, unambiguous, and profound. Canadian-born artist Dorothea Rockburne, herself eighty-eight, sees Guston’s turns as simply operating within the narrative of art history—moving from Abstract Expressionism to narrative art—in a kind of rebellion.

“I wasn’t doing that,” she explains of her own work. “I never changed my style.” Her audience may see it differently. Her signature projects from the 1970s were considered Minimalist and performance-oriented works—but as she insists, they were really, like all of her work, about making “math visual.”

Gladys Triana  The Observer VIII, 2008.
Gladys Triana

Gladys Triana  The Observer VIII, 2008.

Larry Poons, Claudio, 1981.
Courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery

Larry Poons, Claudio, 1981.

Larry Poons, Festinniog, 1975.
Courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery

Larry Poons, Festinniog, 1975.

Larry Poons, Lee's Retreat, 1963.
Courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery

Larry Poons, Lee's Retreat, 1963.

Dorthea Rockburne, Golden Section Painting, Parallelogram with Two Small Squares, 1974.
Dorthea Rockburne

Dorthea Rockburne, Golden Section Painting, Parallelogram with Two Small Squares, 1974.

Dorthea Rockburne, Intersection, 1971/2018.
Courtesy of the Dia Art Foundation

Dorthea Rockburne, Intersection, 1971/2018.

Dorthea Rockburne, Trefoil 1, 2019.
Courtesy of the Dia Art Foundation

Dorthea Rockburne, Trefoil 1, 2019.

“I made my own paint and only wanted to use natural materials like tar.” So many of her pieces of the earlier period are black or brown. It was a shock to come upon her somewhat Mannerist, more artificial tones—acidic greens and slightly sour yellows—in her abstract paintings from the 1980s. And, most recently, to see her ‘Knot’ paintings, which she calls collages, featuring twists of copper wire atop primary-colored canvases and jarringly, each painting hosting a playful bright-colored segment of a frame at one corner.

Galerie Floss

David Rabinowitch, Metrical Construction, 1974.

“An artist is constrained to work within his personality.”

David Rabinowitch

An artist like Philip Pearlstein, who is ninety-seven, has worked throughout his long career with the same subject matter and style, engaging in a hyperrealism that, upon close inspection, is deeply grounded in abstraction. In that way, he has been consistent. As Alexi Worth wrote in an essay for Pearlstein’s 2005 show at Betty Cuningham Gallery: “Kenneth Clark thought that one of the hallmarks of old age was a ‘retreat from realism.’ But in most ways Pearlstein remains as intransigent as ever.” One might say, Yes, that is his late style.

By contrast, evolution and adaptability have driven the work of the eighty-three year old Cuban-American painter Gladys Triana. She took sharp turns from a variety of painterly, Cubistic works to starkly geometric, unembellished photographs and videos amplified by chiaroscuro. These are dramatic works whose effect might be taken to allude to paranoia, as in Film Noir, or otherwise to suggest views of the vast cosmos (as viewed from her city window). Or to consider, as she has said, that photography “is not only an objective reproduction of reality. It is a kind of alchemy that transforms the real by creating new meanings.”

The medium has also served to accommodate her small working space. Her ‘studio’ is a folding-table in her apartment topped with lamps and tripods, and a few wooden blocks or spheres set against a wall covered with black paper. “Photography,” she says, “endows the image with a past, present, and future integrated by the gaze and reactions it engenders.” Although she had been taking more informal photographs over the years, her current adventurous and technologically progressive commitment to new media is representative of the potential for late-career artists to expand their work while reconnecting to their artistic origins.

I finally came to the realization that only rarely do the late styles of most artists truly diverge from that of their earliest works, although they are often enriched. As the old saying goes, what’s bred in the bone comes out in the flesh. Even in the most extreme examples, such as that of Guston, the bones remain the same. In his case, we can see the subtle grid underlying the gestural center of his most abstract canvases and the blocky structure building up his narrative paintings.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that, as the Canadian-born sculptor David Rabinowitch puts it, “an artist is constrained to work within his personality.” I always took the work of the seventy-eight-year-old Rabinowitch, based in California, to be uncompromisingly minimal. But he actually has a disarmingly multitrack trajectory.

In contradistinction to his hard, spare surfaces, he has—throughout his career—followed at least two paths at once. Most recently, he has shown his intricate, highly active “Construction of Vision” drawings based on the plans of Romanesque churches in the Périgord region of France. He was also inspired by the twelfth-century churches of Dusseldorf, where he taught in the 1970s, and by the art of William Blake, whose drawings continue to excite him. But that was not all. Rabinowitch was very taken in his youth by the Cubists and the Russian Constructivists and later by David Smith, not to mention by the ideas of Einstein and Spinoza. All of this is to say that we are who we are, and our work will most often speak to that—clearly and not.

About the Author

Barbara A. MacAdam

Barbara A. MacAdam is a New York-based freelance editor and writer, who worked at ARTnews for many years as well as for Art and Auction, New York Magazine, Review Magazine, and Latin American Literature and Arts. She currently reviews regularly for The Brooklyn Rail.

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