Jules Olitski Never Cared If Painting Was Passe

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 27, 2006

When critic Lucy Lippard saw Jules Olitski's abstract paintings at the 1967 Whitney Annual, she issued the kind of pronouncement that makes the rest of us critics look like huggy bears.

"They're visual Muzak," she said.

Lippard wasn't simply out for blood; she stood convinced that painting was dead. She and the 1960s creative vanguard (Donald Judd was on board, as was Joseph Kosuth) considered formalist painting exhausted and Color School canvases of the type Olitski was producing, well, lame.

It wasn't that Olitski's work in those days wasn't compelling or exciting or that it didn't play close to the edge. It's just that, for a certain group of artists and writers, anyone foolish enough to pick up a palette knife tethered himself hopelessly to the past. Paintings were elevator music on canvas. (Consider, too, that in the late 1960s, echt conservative Michael Fried loved Olitski. If his endorsement didn't guarantee expulsion from the revolution, nothing would.)

Forty years on, exactly how is Olitski faring? Much better, thanks. The 84-year-old artist still makes pictures -- 20 monotypes and one massive hunk of a painting hang in a show at George Washington University's Luther Brady Gallery through mid-July -- and he's still wedded to the painting tradition. But today, that's okay. Olitski has earned the right to do whatever he wants. And the guy really loves to paint.

Olitski started painting when he lived in Paris in the late 1940s. Leaf through old catalogues of his work from the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s -- several are available at the gallery -- and it's clear Olitski wasn't a major innovator. The idiosyncrasies of other artists appear so often in his canvases that he seems like a one-man cover band: Here Olitski borrows the dour tones of Jasper Johns's gray paintings, there he lifts Brice Marden's naked margins. A few pages on, a lone Barnett Newman stripe appears.

Today, Olitski may have found his groove. He often works in monotypes, the one-off printing process that's as close to painting on paper as you can get without actually doing it. Olitski uses his fingertips and his painter's tools to spread, slosh and thwap his pigments around. He traces figures expertly with a few simple gestures. But his landscapes exude the most energy. It's a color thing. When a pink blush emerges so forcefully from inside a bright orange ball of sun, the energy is contagious.

Melodic, yes. Muzak? No.

New Digs for Irvine

It's been two weeks and a day since erstwhile Dupont Circle gallery Irvine Contemporary unveiled its first exhibition in the white box vacated by Fusebox. Whether director Martin Irvine and associate director Heather Russell believed in ghosts before opening day is an open question. But the gallery's former inhabitants do seem to haunt the place.

Irvine's first exhibitions -- a solo by Korean-born artist Ju-Yeon Kim and a group show of gallery artists -- reminds me of what I valued at Fusebox: a pared-down aesthetic and minimal clutter of extreme neatniks. The gallery's visual hygiene ensured that art always looked its best. Whether the pictures on the wall were idiosyncratic or derivative, pungent or banal, they always showed well because they were shown so well. Only a handful of this city's best galleries know how to hang a show that beautifully.

Chock it up to exuberance, disorientation or following in the footsteps of giants, but Irvine's first 14th Street show suffers by comparison. Kim's pale works on paper and canvas are asked to compete with a boisterous 15-person group show of gallery artists -- many hung just inches apart and lining a long wall that snakes to the back of the gallery. Again and again, a colorful sculpture or a bright photograph distracts the viewer.

Amid this visual clutter, Kim's work -- white on white or other subdued hues, with delicate calligraphic mark and tracery -- struggles to hold its own. Like Asian scrolls merged with abstract painting, her paintings and works on paper feature patterns of dots, or flowers and clouds. Even the paintings have the delicacy of drawings on paper. Some hold our attention better than others -- a fact determined by details such as cut-paper patches fluttering on the surface. Yet the show's hanging presents a gnawing problem: There's so much to look at that it's tough to see anything.

Some of the works in the group show "Selections & Celebrations" will look familiar to gallery-goers, as several of these artists were the subject of recent solos at the former location. Of the others who will presumably enjoy solo outings in the coming months and years, I look forward to seeing more from Gina Brocker, who is represented here by a single color photograph from a series chronicling itinerant Irish families. The untitled work here appears, at first, a casual snap of young children. Yet one young girl -- she's 7 or maybe 8 -- captured with her head thrown back and mouth agape, seems the exact replica of some ecstatic saint off a baroque altarpiece. It's an arresting image. When Irvine shows the full series, I hope it receives an elegant and considered hanging.

Jules Olitski: Works on Paper at the Luther W. Brady Gallery, Media and Public Affairs Building, George Washington University, 805 21st St. NW, 2nd floor, Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., 202-994-1525, to July 14. http://www.gwu.edu/{tilde}bradyart .

Ju-Yeon Kim: Summertime, and Selections & Celebrations at Irvine Contemporary, 1412 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-332-8767, to June 10. http://www.irvinecontemporary.com .

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