PRINT April 1969

Jules Olitski’s Sculpture

CURRENTLY AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART is the first showing of Jules Olitski’s sculpture. Five works have been selected from a series of twenty completed in the fall of 1968.

Olitski’s first major venture into sculpture is an important event and not simply because one of America’s leading painters has turned to three dimensions. The startling originality of the works and their sheer size show that he has approached his new medium with daring. He has raised issues and opened possibilities hitherto unperceived.


THE MODERN EMPHASIS ON THE DISTINCTION between color as an essentially optical phenomenon and sculpture as an essentially tactile one is at least as much a theoretical reflection of the loss of unity of the arts as an observation of natural fact. Past ages painted sculpture and indeed it was the near universal practice in the ancient and medieval periods. Unpainted statues became common only in the Renaissance with its taste for antique sculpture known primarily from uncolored Roman examples. Still, painting and sculpture were not conceived as antagonists for both were subordinate to or at least in agreement with the larger unity of architecture. But the modern period has tended to feel a deep unease with polychromy and this was not due solely to Winckelmann’s ignorance of Greek originals. For when that patronage collapsed on which the unity of the arts was based, sculpture became gallery sculpture. And colored gallery sculpture, detached from a decorative ensemble, seemed to risk its status as art and too easily take its place in the world of things. Colorlessness was one way sculpture could advertise itself as art.

It was the same homelessness of sculpture that gave rise to that peculiarly modern search for sculptural “purity” and identity, further excluding polychromy. Walter Pater wrote: “The use of color in sculpture is but an unskillful contrivance to effect, by borrowing from another art, what the nobler sculpture effects by strictly appropriate means.” Twentieth-century sculpture has sought self-definition by stressing truth to traditional technique and materials such as carving in stone, or has employed personal handling in bronze to make sculpture a vehicle for individualistic expression. In either case color was a priori excluded. Abstract and semi-abstract sculpture occasionally employed color, but as the servant of space and form, to identify planes, and without relieving the sense of disquietude, the feeling of the “applied,” superfluous or incidental. Even in the new Constructivist sculpture, initiated by the Cubist collage and the work of Picasso and Gonzalez—a sculpture which has admitted a great many pictorial effects—color has continued to be one of the most problematic features.

In recent years this question of color in sculpture has crystallized in the work of the English sculptor Anthony Caro. Caro’s color cancels texture and helps render his pieces weightless.1 Also it puts the work in an optical modality, a kind of primary illusion, thus functioning almost as a substitute for the traditional pedestal, which Caro has eliminated. It isolates the work as something solely to be seen. From this point of view it is color as visual property rather than the specific hue that counts most.2 Furthermore Caro’s sculptures are usually painted a single color and this “all over” quality makes the color a determinate choice independent of the formal logic of the piece. It is felt as sensibly separable since a sculpture by Caro consists solely of its internal “syntax” while the color relates to the work as a whole. One important characteristic of modernist art has been the interaction between its leading masters. It is in this perspective that Olitski’s sculptures must be seen, for they represent, in part, a response to Caro’s isolation of color in sculpture. Primarily interested in color, Olitski has reversed Caro’s procedure. Rather than relating the color to the sculpture as a whole, Olitski wishes to relate three-dimensional forms to color. The color in a sculpture by Olitski is not final but initial in the sense that from the beginning each choice about the piece is made with color in mind.3 Olitski wants to create forms the raison d’être of which is to be bearers of color—i.e., surfaces. What he wants is sculpture that is all surface.4

Reacting to the work of David Smith, Caro was the first to show how sculpture could become truly abstract and open by juxtaposing discrete elements which avoid the logic of ordinary objects and synoptic composition.5 The viewer is prevented from grasping the work as a whole and asked to become involved with its internal relations—relations which yield a unity. Olitski has seen in abstractness and openness the chance to realize his ambition: to create not colored sculpture but color sculpture—not an object that is colored but multiple color surfaces in space.

Olitski once remarked that he would like to spray color in the air and have it remain there. The closest possible realization of this is color surfaces in space which are not surfaces of some thing. Olitski demonstrates how color can exist for itself in three dimensions when sculpture becomes truly abstract.

It is in relation to Olitski’s painting, however, that these works are fully comprehensible. For it has been in his hands that painting has become purely color surface and that surface itself has taken on a new meaning.


THE SAME PROCESS OF REDUCTION and “purification” which has infected sculpture is operative in modernist painting. One result has been the emergence of paintings like Olitski’s, concerned exclusively with color sensation. The modernist reduction has also led to an increasing flatness and a painted surface which calls attention to itself as object. This limiting of possibilities and increase in literalness has prompted a turn to sculpture by modernist painters (one thinks of Kelly and Newman as well as the Minimalists) and for painters to work on the boundary between painting and sculpture (the shaped canvas school of Ron Davis and Frank Stella, and the free standing sculpture paintings of Kelly and Bolus).

Olitski, too, must be seen in this context for it has been potentialities and limitations implicit in his paintings which have led to the new sculpture and they issue naturally from his work in two dimensions. Olitski’s spray paintings, begun in 1965, display a tactile quality of surface. This is a means to sustain explicitness and immediacy and to prevent the pictures from seeming merely a window into a soft, fictive, atmospheric world. By stressing this tactile effect the illusion seems to materialize on the surface while the latter expands to contain the illusion—“color that appears integral to material surface” as Olitski has put it.6 At the same time as the sprayed surface becomes a total field, the literal edges of the rectangle tend to be felt as determinate drawing—the whole becomes a shaped surface. The proportions and edges of the work are experienced as pictorial rather than, as in previous painting, simply neutral limits.7

The spray pictures, while making us aware as never before of what surface in painting is or can be, also limited Olitski as to the kind of color accentuation that could be tolerated within the field, namely fluctuations of value and hue that avoided discrete edge. As Olitski himself has written: “When the conception of internal form is governed by edge, color . . . appears to remain on and above the surface. I think, on the contrary, of color being seen in and throughout, not solely on, the surface.”8

This, among other considerations, caused Olitski to introduce drawing in a variety of ways close to the framing edge of his pictures. An alternative, and one that Olitski began to consider only later, was to exploit the pictorial, drawn quality of the literal edges of his surfaces to create shaped surfaces in actual space and to relate them to each other—that is, sculpture. Literal edge is inherent to sculpture and therefore Olitski could draw in three dimensions in a way that he could no longer in two. Moreover, Olitski’s unique ability to identify color and surface could make spatially developed configurations appear as shaped color rather than colored sculpture.9 A whole new range of possibilities opened up.

It is, then, the momentum of Olitski’s impulse toward ever more varied and richer color experience, together with his responsiveness to a “problem” recently placed on the modernist agenda, that account for the new work.


OLITSKI COMPLETED THE ENTIRE SERIES of twenty sculptures in a seven week burst of activity, working in a large factory at Saint Neots near Cambridge in England. He first ordered a great number of aluminum pieces of three types: tubes, domes and sheets. Many of these were already colored with an anodized surface. He then arranged, cut, reshaped, welded and corrugated these parts. The sculptures were sprayed with acrylic, air-drying lacquer. Then further adjustments and spraying were made.

The sculptures display an additive deployment of distinct elements. The vocabulary, the circular and elliptical, the concave and convex, is intended to present ever-changing and flowing surfaces. Analogous to the Impressionists who, interested in the purely visual in nature, so organized themselves that it was only nature’s surface that manifested itself to their eyes, Olitski seeks to so contrive and spray three-dimensional forms that they appear solely as color surfaces.

More than any previous sculpture, these works exist in a specifically pictorial mode consisting of “drawn” line and color. Despite their spreading extension into the room they seem to move away from us, irrespective of our point of view. Containing their own space and light within themselves, they emit their own rarified atmosphere and are strangely insubstantial and weightless. A general close valuing of the colors, and the spray technique, gives a unity of effect and sustains the pictorial mode. Color is not simply on the surface but creates a new kind of enriched surface and new spatial relationships. By means of various consistencies, absorbent or reflective, as well as the sharp cutting away of similarly colored surfaces, real light is implicated in the indeterminate effect. Subtle chiaroscuro shading is made to confound with actual shadowing, producing an added illusiveness.

Olitski’s primary interest is in surface, yet his drawing, too, has become liberated and with it a real gift for disposing forms in space. His contour cuts out some very personal, “free” shapes and is frequently the bearer of poignant feeling or playful effect. In either case it is experienced as pictorial, as well as being the literal edge formed by the limits and intersections of surfaces.

The difficulties that arise are due to the uniqueness of the intent—to make sculptures which maintain continuity of visible surface in the round. Numerous points of view must be considered, mass suppressed, volume rendered less palpable. Often line conspires with color to abstract volume, making it seem not exactly flat but an illusion of itself, a purely pictorial existent. In Heartbreak of Ronald and William, where a large dome emerges convexly from the floor, the strongly tactile texture of the sprayed paint transforms potential volume into sensuous, expanding, and spreading surface. Sometimes, as in Whipsaw, color flow appears to determine shape and inflect surface, the whole a kind of color event. In Wheels-up the cursive drawing which carries the viewer around the work seems to occur against the plane of the floor; the floor, like the real light, becomes involved in the illusion—existing purely visually, not perpendicular to our bodies, but oblique to our eyes, a further surface.

These huge forms with their seemingly eccentric shapes can appear as strange abstract objects if the viewer does not give himself over to the color surfaces and contours. The floor, as a constant co ordinate which we share with the works, could become the occasion for such a distancing, seeing them as things existing in a space continuous with our own. This accounts for Olitski’s efforts to make the floor party to the illusion. The floor becomes that from which all shapes develop and to which they refer, a constant co-ordinate for the work. It is mainly through the dome shapes that the floor surface is “established” analogous to the way tactile effects establish the picture plane in the paintings. This manner of dealing with the floor is another feature that links the sculptures with the paintings.

As a further attempt to involve the viewer Olitski even considered a sculpture which was to include a spiral staircase with a huge dome suspended from it half way up, permitting views from above and below.10

Heartbreak of Ronald and William, the last of the series, is the most extraordinary. Unlike Wheels-up it presents no symmetry or total image and the viewer is invited to surrender to the unfolding of surfaces which present themselves at a variety of levels. He encounters surprise effects and unexpected relations but without that transparency which makes Caro’s work fully visible (if not fully graspable) at first glance. Here color and the abstract create a new kind of roundness.

Heartbreak of Ronald and William has no frontality, no beginning and no end. It exists at the most imaginable remove from Hildebrand’s notion of sculpture. It is also the opposite of Minimalist work. With the latter the unity is initial, oppressive, while with Olitski it is final, cumulative. And whereas the Minimalists give us preconceived object forms which are “finished,” Olitski presents shaped color surfaces in space.

The boldness of these statements is testimony to Olitski’s confidence in his powers, and their beauty to the range of his sensibility and artistic imagination. One can find them puzzling and disturbing while continuing to learn from them. Without question we are confronted with works of major ambition and newness. They constitute the first authentic attempt in the history of art to realize pure color in three dimensions.

Kenworth Moffett


1. First pointed out by Michael Fried in Anthony Caro, White. chapel Art Gallery, London, 1963.

2. It might also be noted that to preserve concreteness Caro has most often used opaque and reflective surface color and avoided dissolving or disembodied color effects.

3. Olitski even specified in ordering the aluminum pieces that some be treated with an anodized color surface. This gave him a colored ground to spray into and also permitted him to calculate color effects as he went along.

4. This was Olitski’s aim already in his first sculpture, Bunga 45, 1967, as was pointed out at the time by Michael Fried who also noted a relation to Caro’s work. “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, Volume V, No. 10, Summer 1967, pp. 20-21.

5. See Clement Greenberg, “Anthony Caro,” Arts Yearbook 8 1965, pp. 106-109.

6. Jules Olitski, “Painting in Color,” United States of America, 33rd International Biennial Exhibition of Art, Venice, 1966, p. 39. Reprinted in Artforum, slightly revised, January, 1967.

7. See essay by Clement Greenberg in the Biennial catalog, p. 38.

8. Olitski, “Painting in Color,” p. 39.

9. A prefiguration of the sculptures might also be seen in some of the vertical spray pictures where variations of value at the side edges act as nascent modeling. The whole surface becomes the illusion of a slightly curved relief. Indeed, beginning with the matter painting of the late ’50s, Olitski has, several times, shown an inclination to work concurrently with the sculptural and the pictorial—isolating and juxtaposing the two or informing the one with the other.

10. Olitski first had this idea in the summer of 1968 but technical difficulties prevented him from carrying it through. His most recent drawings for sculptures indicate that he has returned to his original conception. They show climbing spiral forms and overhanging domes.


Sculptural shape, conceived of as extensions and as further levels of the ground support, becomes wherever placed, inseparable from the latter. It is the sense of shape, not as separate object placed closely in relation to the ground, but as being in itself derived from the ground. Sculptural shape is to the ground support what pictorial shape is to a painting support.

Since edge cannot be separated from shape, drawing is everywhere to be found in sculpture. Sculpture conceived of in terms of drawing, by relying on line for direction and extension, may articulate the ground it rests on, but it does not possess that ground or the surrounding space. That sculpture is horizontal, diagonal or vertical, that it tilts, crawls or rises like a totem, is irrelevant. Nor does removing the pedestal suffice of itself to make sculpture possess the ground. Sculpture ought to be conceived—in its entirety—as coming from and out of and going into the ground. Even an overhang or “ceiling” shape is to be realized as projected ground.

Sculpture is surface in space possessing ground. Surface is inevitably color—if only the color of the untreated surface. Sculpture is colored surface. Nonetheless, to be meaningful as colored surface, the work must—from beginning to end—be achieved in terms of sculptural shape. Colored surface and sculptural shape move together in space. Unlike painting, sculpture need not be available in one glance—to be read in its entirety from any one point of view. The excitement and problem in a sculpture lie in the multiple points of view that can be seen only one at a time. Wherever you stand and look there is a single visual experience—as in painting—except that with sculpture the cumulative experience consists in looking by going around and around colored surface—while in painting it lies in looking across and across colored surface.

Jules Olitski