Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski

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Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski photo
©Jules Olitski estate/Photo: Michael Cullen
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Editorial Review

Working with an unusual arsenal
By Maura Judkis
Friday, Oct. 12, 2012

No artist could wield a brush quite like Jules Olitski. Critic Clement Greenberg once called him “the best painter alive.”

No one could wield a leaf blower quite like him, either. Considered a master of Color Field painting for his richly chromatic work, Olitski earned Greenberg’s accolade in part by embracing unorthodox tools. Squeegees, leaf blowers, paint guns and industrial brushes -- the implements of commercial painters and handymen -- were all in his arsenal, creating textured canvases that exude indulgence and restraint, sometimes simultaneously. His paint fell on his canvas as lightly as the fine mist of a sneeze, or as thick as icing on a cake.

It’s easy to date an Olitski painting just by looking at it. His career can be divided into five distinct periods, and each is well represented in “Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski” at the American University Museum. (The show is a companion to “Jules Olitski on an Intimate Scale” at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery.)

His early stain paintings featured candy-colored mitochondrial dots-within-dots on unprimed canvases, while during his spray period, 1965 to 1970, he used the same genial colors but spritzed lightly on the canvas to create clouds of pigment. In the baroque and high baroque periods that followed, Olitski turned away from those colors and toward earth tones and thickly layered, shimmering iridescent paints. His late period, until his death in 2007, was a return to lively hues, but in a mix of crackling and slick textures, like oil pooling atop water.

The nuance in Olitski’s surfaces cannot be reproduced. His paintings must be viewed both up close -- with your face as few inches away from the canvas as gallery minders will permit -- and from afar. Zoom in, especially on the spray paintings, and you’ll be rewarded with a cellular view of the flecks of colors and metallic sheen that make up Olitski’s ever-shifting surfaces. Step back -- way back -- and the canvases hum with a low-fi energy, shifting moodily between ombre shades in the sprayed works and churning with coarse waves in the paintings that followed.

The most decadent work in this exhibition is “Lives of Angels,” painted in 1990 at the midpoint of Olitski’s high baroque period. Creamy metallic paint rises more than an inch off the canvas, so thickly impastoed that it seems to have just dried. No leaf blowers here: The paint was applied with Olitski’s gloved hands, recording and amplifying his every gesture. It’s obvious, more than anything, that this was a man who loved paint -- not just its look and color, but its texture, smell, viscosity.

But his relationship with his medium was conflicted, as the title of his final series, “With Love and Disregard” -- a reference to philosopher William James -- demonstrates. The graphical spots of his early work return, but this time they’re tinged with anxiety. Olitski’s love was for paint, but his disregard was for its limitations. He may have been able to do things with paint that no other artist could, as Greenberg quipped, but he made compromises. He once said that instead of his earlier spray paintings, he would have preferred to spray color in the air and leave it suspended there -- a sculpture as a cloud. For those split seconds, he may have been the best living sculptor, too.