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News > Jules Olitski





Opening:  Friday, February 10, 2012





He was praised by preeminent New York art critic Clement Greenberg as “the best painter alive,” but Jules Olitski never coasted on such accolades.  Often associated with Color Field painters and post painterly abstraction, Olitski differentiated himself from these schools in his investigations of the tactile and the painterly in the face of impersonal “cool” abstraction.  With its emphasis on stain painting and visual gorgeousness, Color Field shied away from illusions of depth and visible brushwork, instead favoring the evocative powers of pure color.  In the hands of painters like Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler, Color Field painting exuded an expansive, almost hedonistic optimism.  At the time, Olitski wished for his paintings to look like “nothing but some colors sprayed into the air and staying there.”  Olitski’s decision in early 1965 to switch to paint applied by spray gun allowed him to produce areas of increased intensity of hue without violating the flat surface.


While Olitski gets credit for remaining true to the Color Field school, he also found ways to push the envelope of these rather restricted means.  This exhilarating show of some 24 works, produced between the early 1970s and 2002, prove that Olitski – aesthetically and historically – was far ahead of the pack.  Coinciding with the exhibition Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski  at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which highlights important periods and themes from the artist’s long career,  the Meredith Long & Company gathering is one of the first gallery overviews of Olitski’s paintings since his death in 2007.  Although Meredith Long has represented Olitski for over four decades, the current exhibition aims to reacquaint viewers with the artist’s effervescent, audacious canvases evocative of jazz improvisations, lavalike flows and billowing mists.  The show confirms that Olitski never looked back, always pushing abstraction into new territory with materials and new techniques, experimenting with airbrush, gels and pigments.  The Meredith Long exhibition invokes a particular verve, combining a penchant for flash and visual drama with an acute interest in the physicality of paint, ranging from stained and spray-painted abstractions to strong brushwork and heavy impasto exaggerated by pigmented spackle that resembles vigorously worked cement or meteorlike chunks.


Acidic yellows, luminous lime-greens and fluorescent oranges pop up among luxuriant burgundies, deep greens and blazing blues.  Lurid pinks and purples bump up against powder-puff pastels.  Flamboyant reds surround deep blacks and browns.  In this setting, the tonic and the toxic, the lyric and lurid seemingly reflect each other and conspire.  Pictorial space is shallow, but bottomless.  Surfaces are physical and deeply erotic.  Yet their keen sense of play make the paintings seem not so much descriptions as outbursts of life – hence their compulsive and dizzying intensity.  Explosions of color evoke the spatial atmospherics of JMW Turner or Frederic Edwin Church; the minute dots of the spray gun bring to mind the optical effects shared by Monet and Georges Seurat.  They are all here in Olitski’s floating discs, congealed pools, juicy wet-on-wet swirls, scudding brushstrokes and cake-icing hues.


Overall, the exhibition closely follows Olitski’s perceptual shifts from tranquil matteness and pristine celestial light to perpetrator of whipped and lathered storm-tossed surfaces.  In full command of his medium, Olitski used squeegees, brooms and mitts, pulling and pushing or swiping the acrylic paint – a concentrated effort of sheer mental and physical force.  Natural Histories – Four (1977) presents an almost fossilized record of the artist’s hands on the wet material, but also suggests a lunarscape and simultaneous pull of gravity.  In Broom of Eve – One (1979), the hovering tracery of silvery line traverses the blue-green modulations with the insouciance of a jet’s vapor trail.  Second Fate (1982) swamps one’s vision with ravishing cotton-candy color while at the same time conveying a real feeling of cosmic expanse. For Expansions (1985) and Penelope Cloth (1985), the canvases have been covered with a thick, pasty priming that has been vigorously troweled or brushed into low reliefs, then sprayed with earth tones.  The results are similar to viewing mountains, canyons or deserts from above, an effect heightened by the way light catches the deep ridges, nodules and troughs.  The dark overspray gives the raised, almost topographical surfaces the look of depicted shadows.  Modifying the gold, silver and coppery hues are blushes of finely sprayed color and, at the canvas edges, there often lurk splashes of bright blue or dexterously painted dark borders – eloquent formalist devices to contain the infinite space of the picture plane.  Throughout, Olitski’s handling of the paint grows looser and more rambunctious, the mood shifting from subtly melancholic to overtly ecstatic.  The late works are a jolt – glowing or crusted orbs and biomorphic forms with amorphous pools of variegated pigment suggest views through a microscope.  Confectionery-like swirls and thick gobs of metallic pinks, yellows and lavenders combine painterly logic and buoyant sensuality.  In Vision Scriber (1990), the frothy peaks of iridescent paint resemble whipped egg whites or mushed ice cream.


The Meredith Long exhibition encapsulates a period in which Olitski celebrated the life of paint, communicating a belief that, through paint, he could also touch the elemental world.  Olitski questions what barely holds, summons forth what is mutable and contingent.  He engages viewers in a challenging and refreshing manner.  Through hard thinking and tough labor,  the artist pushes each work – and us- into slightly unknown territories.  In his singular, unswerving determination, Olitski remains a painter with visible cause.












Jules Olitski was born Jevel Demikovsky (1922) in Ukraine, a few months after his father was executed by the government on political charges.  He immigrated to New York as a child with his mother, who married Hyman Olitsky, and subsequently changed his surname, which later evolved into Olitski.  In 1939, Olitski won a scholarship to study at the Pratt Institute.  He trained at the National Academy of Design School and at the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, both in New York.  He served in the U.S. Army during WWII and then studied in Paris on the GI Bill between 1949-51 at the Ossip Zadkine School and the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere.  Olitski received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York University.  He went on to teach at C.W. Post College in Brookville, Long Island and then at Bennington College, Vermont until 1967.  His first solo show in the U.S., in the back room at the Alexander Iolas Gallery in New York in 1958, won him the attention of the art world.  Among his many honors, he represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale in 1966; he was the first living artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969; he was elected to the National Academy in 1993, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006.  In addition to having over 150 solo exhibitions worldwide, Olitski’s work is in the collections of major public institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the Tate Museum.  Olitski lived and worked in New Hampshire and Florida until his death in 2007.



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