In 1951, Life magazine published a photograph of 14 men – and one woman – in a studio, staring solemnly at the camera. They were, as the headline put it, the “Irascibles”: the principal players in abstract expressionism, united in their anger about a recent survey of contemporary painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which they felt was too reactionary.
There they all are, the big beasts of 20th-century
American art: Mark Rothko, smoking on a stool in the front row; slick-haired Willem de Kooning, glaring from the back; and at the centre, the eye of this artistic storm, Jackson Pollock, hunched in a chalk-stripe suit.
But who is the figure standing at the far left? Wearing a dark shirt and tie and a baggy, doublebreasted jacket, he looks like a movie mobster. In fact, he was a brilliant painter and now the subject of an exhibition at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, the first devoted to him in this country. His name was Richard Pousette-Dart (1916-92), and he is the forgotten man of abstract expressionism.
“He was a deeply private, shy, and extremely peaceful person,” says his 71-year-old daughter, Joanna, speaking by phone from New York. Not very “irascible”, then? She laughs. “No, he was a vegetarian from the time he was 17. And a pacifist during the war.”
The elder of Pousette-Dart’s two children, Joanna was born in 1947, six years after her father’s first solo exhibition. By then, he had embarked on his third marriage – to Joanna’s mother, the poet Evelyn Gracey – and they were living in a cold-water apartment on 56th Street in Manhattan. Barely into his 30s, Pousette-Dart was already at the forefront of