PRINT January 1967

Olitski and Shape

PERHAPS THE MOST UNEXPECTED THING about Jules Olitski’s new paintings at the Andre Emmerich Gallery is their emancipation from the narrow vertical format. For the first time since he began making pictures with the spray-gun Olitski has attained mastery over the horizontal rectangle as well as, in the superb Sleep Robber, the square (or near-square). This may seem trivial, or at any rate incidental to the magnificence of the new work, but it is not. In his remarks on Olitski’s art in the catalog to the American pavilion in last summer’s Biennale, Clement Greenberg wrote:

The degree to which the success of Olitski’s paintings depends on proportion of height to width in their inclosing shapes is, I feel, unprecedented. Because they attract too little notice as shapes, and therefore tend to get taken too much for granted, he has had more and more to avoid picture formats that are square or approach squareness. He has had also to avoid picture formats that are long and narrow, simply because these tend to stamp themselves out as shapes less emphatically than formats that are tall and narrow do . . .

This can be verified in one’s experience. The narrow verticals are the strongest of Olitski ’s early spray paintings, largely because of the sheer perspicuity with which they stamp themselves out as shapes. (The question of why Olitski’s narrow vertical paintings tend to make themselves felt as shapes with such force is one of the most interesting raised by recent modernist painting. For example, it seems unlikely that the vertical format as such attracts more notice than a horizontal rectangle of the same dimensions.) Moreover, as I suggested in my recent essay on Stella, their perspicuity as shape––that is, the fact that their shapes are experienced as pictorial, not merely literal, entities––is what secures their identity as painting. Either the support stamps itself out as shape or the painting is experienced as nothing more than a kind of object. This inescapably puts the shape of the support under enormous pressure; and it is questionable whether any pictorial entity or convention––not to say one apparently as central to the entire enterprise of modernist painting as the shape of the support––could stand up under pressure of this kind for very long.

In Olitski’s new paintings, however, the pressure is suddenly and unexpectedly off. This is to say more than that the quality of the new pictures does not depend on their efficacy as shape, though that is indeed the case. It is also to say that the question of whether or not they stamp themselves out as shape does not really arise. One does not feel that the best paintings in the present show––for example, Sleep Robber, C+ J+ B, Maximum––succeed despite the fact that they do not make themselves felt as shapes. Rather, the issue of whether or not they do so has been defeated or anyway staved off, if only for the moment, by the paintings themselves. This, I believe, is what has enabled Olitski to extend his authority––the authority of a major painter at the height of his powers––to include the horizontal and square formats that, until now, proved intractable.

The defeat or staving off of the issue of pictorial versus literal shape is accomplished largely by the sprayed bands (amounting to a partial internal “frame”) or long brush-strokes of color that run along two or three sides of a given painting. The limits of the support are no longer simply and nakedly juxtaposed to the rest of the painting as in the early spray pictures. Instead, the bands or brushstrokes are experienced as belonging simultaneously to both, and hence as mediating between the two––with the result that any qualms about a given picture one might have no longer concern its shape but tend to focus on the bands or brush-strokes themselves. At the same time, however, the recent paintings mark a new stage in Olitski’s exploration of the framing-edge––specifically, the discovery of the immediate vicinity of that edge as a terrain of extraordinary freedom and possibility. It is as though as long as he remains close to the limits of the support Olitski can do whatever he wants: repossess the square, use the horizontal rectangle without alluding to the horizon, even resurrect Abstract Expressionist brushwork. What is almost inconceivable is that, in paintings like C + J+ B, Maximum and Heightened, such brushwork is made to serve the ends of color. (In the new paintings this chiefly means close values of livid, sour hues––principally yellows, greens, pinks, oranges and an almost phosphorescent violet.) The freedom Olitski seems to enjoy in the immediate environs of the edge has its corresponding constraints––most important, that of not being able to place his bands and brush-strokes anywhere else. Even at the edge, of course, not just anything goes. But the best of the new paintings, although in one sense imageless, provide an image of an achieved freedom and naturalness that is nothing less than exalting.

––Michael Fried