PRINT September 1973

The Jules Olitski Retrospective

A LARGE RETROSPECTIVE EXHIBITION of the works of Jules Olitski, which took place at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts this spring, traveled to Buffalo during the summer, and opens at the Whitney in September. It consists of 75 paintings by this most remarked and problematic present-day painter. It introduces us to Olitski’s origins, acquaints us with his range, and provides a convenient occasion for exercising our own responses—all the more readily because with such volume an artist’s limitations also show.

The career begins with thick, earth-toned spackle reliefs from the late 1950s. Their similarities to tendencies in French art are fairly overt. In themselves they wouldn’t put a painter on the map. Neither, probably, would most of the “biometric” paintings of the early 1960s, in which large areas of paint seem like mere filler within the forms. Still, a work like Chemise, 1963, retains conviction.

The concentric format of Chemise and similar paintings seems to have posed as many “problems” for Olitski as it may have “solved.” The outside ring necessarily has a special role to play compared with those that are successively contained. The open concentric rings themselves suggest tentative croppings to which the canvas might be subjected. Stella’s spiraling squares resolve this issue more satisfactorily, largely by overloading the counting or tracking impulse. Why didn’t Olitski try the tondo shape? Fatal Plunge Lady, 1963, from the same phase, aims to reconcile the concentric motif to the rectangular donnée, but there is a florid reverse curve where two very slightly different reds meet in the main mass. Turned Out, from the same year, is similar but more rewarding.

In the filling-in of its rusty main area Deep Drag, 1964, has a subtle tonal modulation, very much an improvement over the reverse curve effect of 1963. Bright blue and green stripes at the lower left call Ellsworth Kelly to mind. An arclike purple swipe at the top and a green dot together generate a palettelike shape, perhaps in affirmation of planarity.

Hovering color discs are prominent around 1964, notably in Monkey Woman. When the discs are smaller and more like dots, and when they buzz against a contrasting ground, as do the three bright blue dots embedded in a large dusty red area in Flaubert Red, 1964, one thinks of Poons in the early ’60s. The reference to Flaubert is interesting. Madame Bovary is a very red book; almost anything that can possibly be described by a color in it is red. Also, in a number of places Flaubert resorts to imagery that is suggestively like Olitski: “widely spaced dark purple stains on the vast gray surface,” “long thin stripes that broke off at the corners,” and so on.

1964 was a big year. Olitski’s dots moved to the extremities of the canvas, part of a general vitalization of the edge and a draining of pictorial gravity from the nuclear area, as in Tin Lizzy Green. Some spray paintings of 1964 and 1965 are disappointing. An occasionally uneven or erratic use of the technique in question unduly draws our attention to the method alone. In these same works an almost electromagnetic drift of lines toward the edges raises an issue that later became preeminent: the way such bands stop, meet, abut, or join tends to imply that, after the edges, the corners should be the succeeding preoccupation. The best spray painting in this period occurs when the sprayed fleck is just about the size of the exposed canvas weave, as in the airy Comprehensive Dream, 1965. Then the identity of fleck and fiber produces a satisfying sense of fittingness between means and end.

Olitski also tried spraying more heavily, piling up the sprayed dots and having them fuse into tiny conglomerate clusters. Doulma, 1966, in this way becomes a flat pattern of clusters, like a trimmed hedge. Further, as the super-dots pile up thickly on the surface, they suggest the geologic cracking of heavy pigment that Poons has come to be associated with. Olitski’s own use of paint scum later on is similarly tangible. Doulma also goes heavy on the edges, although its vital linear paint swipes are not all equally well drawn.

When the spraying is done with a rectilinear shield or template Olitski produces a surface activity that recalls edge treatment in Neo-lmpressionist painting. Typically, say in Seurat, an abrupt shift in color is accomplished by shifting the densities of adjacent hues across an implied frontier. Unlocked, 1966, uses this procedure, isolating it as a phenomenon/device/motif. As a detached corner in an exaggeratedly vertical canvas (140 1/2” x 19”) it is an obvious setup for comparison with a freestanding zip by Barnett Newman. It makes more sense perhaps to detach one active vertical slicing band than a mechanism for handling corners.

Olitski’s predilection for flavorful tonality emerged within the context of a lighthearted and mock-Rococo indulgence contemporaneous with Pop art. The erotic coloristic indulgence of Pink Thrust, 1966, for instance, is implicit in the title. Tin Lizzy Green, 1964, Pink Green, 1964, Pink Shush, 1965, Pink Alert, 1966, Thigh Smoke, 1966, and Instant Loveland, 1968, are titles in a similar vein. Perhaps there is a whole abstractedly Pop side to Olitski, for people put off by images. His coloristic binges supply a pleasure that is as quenching as it is (delightfully) mindless.

The verve of the color allows for a witty play on bourgeois good taste versus hearty vulgarity. In Patutsky in Paradise, 1966, a huge horizontal field of orange, peach, and lime—sherbet colors—includes a nervy, muddy patch where the peach and lime collide, all surrounded by a U-shaped, three-sided band consisting of plum purple, blue, orange, pink, blue again, purple again, and orange. Olitski’s color can get downright zappy. This could be unpleasant on a smaller scale. Perhaps any color is beautiful if the sample is large enough. The real presence of color, or its disarming intensity, is a primary gratification.

Especially when massed, many of Olitski’s works have an air of earnest opulence that is not altogether dignified, despite the fact that taste and luxury seem to be a central concern. There is perhaps a reticence struggling against vital desires. The opulence that results can have a repressed character, as in severe disproportions of mark to format in more colossal paintings. In Lavender Liner, 1967, which occupies about nine square yards of canvas, a narrow yellow green line about half an inch long is very important. That creates a radical discrepancy, and extremism cannot be tasteful. In the same painting a tiny but active yellow dot down a little from the top edge introduces a note of uptight preciosity: panache becomes ostentation, and care inhibition.

Sheer Texan hugeness does have possibilities of its own. Vast 3rd lndominatable, 1970, covering a cool 14 square yards, confronts us with such an expanse of area that its tight, waxy, flecked surface becomes a rigid shield, forcing our attention far out to the edges and establishing an unexpected intimacy with an immense object. Pure proportions—the relative length, position, tone, intensity, and draftsmanly character of the edge lines—force the viewer to embrace a composition of quasi-musical positions and intensities.

Olitski solved one of his main difficulties in 1972. In the huge Instant Loveland of 1968 a tremendous field of sprayed in-painting gets somewhat careless, like a window only washed perfectly up to a certain height. More significantly, a thick hunk of paint scum was slapped onto the canvas in the center of the far left-hand side. That purely textural differentiation may be interesting, but we cannot escape experiencing the skin of paint as an imperfection. However, in Call One, of 1972, we feel that the idea of just such a residue of pigment is appropriate to Olitski’s general drift from the main field to the edges and then to the corners, as if draining a pond or marsh. A high consciousness of surface also marks works as recently painted as this year. In Darkness Spread—I, 1973, Olitski’s waxy, drum-tightness of face carries a stroking that is heavy enough to suggest fiberglass. The result has the visual hardness of Masonite.

I wonder why an exhibition that included remarkable material should have proven disappointing. Part of the reason, I think, is built into Olitski’s approach, but part of it is attached to him from without.

Moving entirely away from the notion of a mounted motif has its own internal difficulties. Reducing or negating all contained incident tends to make the painting as a whole a single unmounted motif, if not a contentless frame around an uncut mat. Sometimes the work barely stops short of the redundancy of exactly representing itself, diminished slightly in size—as by a mirror. And the whole reductive tendency is very much at odds with the attitude toward color. Essential colors are restricted to nearly linear durations along the rim, as if to render them as insubstantial as possible. That works against the desire of all coloristic painting to achieve a bodily immediacy. The disproportionately huge area of painted-in ground can become compromised into an unwieldly and subservient foil. Vastness obviates loveliness, and chromatic prettiness obviates sublimity. Instead of Rubens, Olitski often gives us monstrified Boucher.

Kenworth Moffett, a card-carrying formalist, is quite informative in his substantial introduction to the catalogue. But his capsule history of modernist painting is so obediently partisan that it spoils the dialectic of the Impressionist legacy by overlooking the singular pertinence to Olitski of edge sensitivity and the blending of colors by invading densities and regularized flecking in Neo-Impressionism. This is all the more urgent because Moffett repeatedly skips from Impressionism to Fauvism. (What makes Neo-lmpressionism so hairy for formalists is that it involved a revolutionary change from form as traditionally responsible to line and mass to form as a massless effect of color.) Secondly, there is what could be called a fallacy of technique. Far too many times Moffett is distracted by simple manufacture, which distracts us, in turn, from a confrontation in terms of meaning or value. The visible facture of a painting is one thing; its invisible archaeology is another.

I said that Olitski’s work seems to struggle between reserve and indulgence. The struggle in question is not helped by the air of the posh and the smart, with which his work has come to be invested. Largely due to that phenomenon, and no doubt to feedback from it, Olitski en masse comes on like a lusty paint-slinger straining to hold a brush and palette.