PRINT April 2007


Jules Olitski

BEFORE SITTING DOWN to draft these reflections, I went to my shelves and brought forth Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss’s monumental and tendentious Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (2004), consulted the index, and looked up “Olitski, Jules.” There was one reference, on page 472. I turned to page 472, where I found an inset column headed “Artforum.” In the last paragraph I read: “[Editor Philip] Leider’s insistence on lucid analytical prose forged a close relationship between him and Michael Fried, opening the magazine’s pages as well to Clement Greenberg and its covers to artists such as Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, and Morris Louis.” Nice for me but not so nice for Jules, one of the foremost painters of the past half century—also a sculptor of great originality—no work by whom in any medium is deemed worthy of being illustrated in Bois, Buchloh, Foster, and Krauss’s massive tome, which will likely have a huge impact on pedagogy in upcoming years. Then, knowing the outcome but wishing to make sure, I turned to the section called “Further Reading” at the rear of their book, a section organized by key names and movements, where Color Field painting is conspicuous by its absence. I mention this not to protest—what would be the point?—but rather by way of indicating the state of the question with respect to high modernist art in soi-disant avant-garde circles as recently as 2004. (Elsewhere just possibly things are starting to change. I have no hard evidence for this, but I have a hunch that the change, if and when it comes, will be abetted by the current enthusiasm for serious, large-scale art photography—the work of Jeff Wall, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, et al. Why? Because photography has got people enjoying looking again, always bad news for the status quo.)

SOMETIME DURING the fall of 1964 I visited Jules in his studio in South Shaftsbury, Vermont, to choose the paintings to be exhibited in “Three American Painters: Noland, Olitski, Stella” at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard in April 1965. Jules was then painting large, mainly tall, “window shade” pictures in which a single tract of intense color occupied most of the field, with bits of colored drawing and/or relatively small disks of contrasting hues pushed to the bare canvas margins, where they interacted with the implied unrolling (up or down, up and down) of the dominant color flow and helped stabilize the abstract image as a whole. The paintings were made mainly with rollers and sponges; the color felt thin yet optically dense. Moreover, within the central “window shade” the color underwent inflection, either subtly, as toward the top of Tin Lizzie Green, 1964, one of his masterpieces of that moment, or more massively, as in Hot Ticket, 1964, a less refined picture that nevertheless rocked me on my heels by its boldness and exuberance when Jules brought it out. That afternoon was when I first fully realized that “Three American Painters” would be an event, which it surely was: The classic galleries in the Fogg never looked as happy, and the opening was a celebration of high modernist abstraction in a community not hitherto known for its commitment to that path, with Olitski and Frank Stella, two very different but equally compelling personalities, sharing star status (Ken Noland couldn’t come). Visitors from New York included Clement Greenberg and André Emmerich; among the graduate student celebrants were Charles Millard, Rosalind Krauss, and the late Kermit Champa. By that time Jules had begun to make astonishing paintings using spray guns, a momentous development in our universe. Someday, in a more perfect society, as Cavafy says in one of his poems, those canvases too along with their successors will find an honored place in critical histories of twentieth-century art.

A FEW MONTHS AGO, the sculptor Willard Boepple, an especially close friend of Jules’s, called and suggested that I give Jules a ring. He had been battling cancer for several years, and Willard said he was about to undergo some further chemo, with prospects that were at best uncertain. A few days later I called and got Jules’s wife, Kristina, who passed me on to him. We spoke for about ten minutes; he was, as always, dauntless, cheerful, I would even say triumphant. It was our final conversation. After he died—on February 4, at the age of eighty-four—I spoke again with Willard, who told me that toward the very end, in the hospital, one of Jules’s doctors asked him whether or not he wanted heroic measures taken to extend his life. “Of course I do,” Jules is supposed to have said. “I still have work to do.”

HERE IS THE LAST paragraph from a short text by Greenberg, introducing Jules’s contribution to the Thirty-third Venice Biennale in 1966 (other artists in the American Pavilion were Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, and Roy Lichtenstein):

The grainy surface Olitski creates with his way of spraying is a new kind of paint surface. It offers tactile associations hitherto foreign, more or less, to picture-making; and it does new things with color. Together with color, it contrives an illusion of depth that somehow extrudes all suggestions of depth back to the picture’s surface; it is as if that surface, in all its literalness, were enlarged to contain a world of color and light differentiations impossible to flatness but which yet manage not to violate flatness. This in itself constitutes no artistic virtue; what makes it that—what makes Olitski’s paint surface a factor in the creation of major art—is the way in which one of the profoundest pictorial imaginations of this time speaks through it.

I hope it’s clear that the first three sentences constitute an exemplary feat of art-critical description. That and not his artistic judgments per se is what made Greenberg such an inspiring figure for Stella, Darby Bannard, and me when we were in our teens and early twenties at Princeton in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, Greenberg somewhere along the line also let it be known that he considered Jules the “best painter alive,” and that’s all that tends to be remembered—and of course it is held not only against Greenberg but also against Jules. Here, too, there’s no point protesting against the sheer vulgarity of this.

WHEN TASTE—a depressing notion—turned dramatically against Jules and the other Color Field painters, he never complained. Not in my hearing, at any rate. Instead he kept painting away, turning out masterpieces (yes, masterpieces) in a variety of techniques. And around 1995, moving temporarily away from abstraction, Jules started to make small “visionary” landscapes and seascapes in pastel and in acrylic on paper, which he sold for relatively modest sums through less-than-major galleries. Mainly he drew and painted at night, in his studio on Islamorada in the Florida Keys in the winter, and in another studio on an island in Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire in the summer. During the summer of 1996 my wife and daughter (then two-plus years old) and I visited Jules and Kristina there, and saw thirty or forty of the earliest works in his new vein. What I mostly remember, apart from Kristina’s warmth and kindness, was Jules’s deep contentment with his lot. Just then he was enamored of a wonderful sentence of Emerson’s, “Do the thing, and you shall have the power,” which he quoted with relish more than once. (Jules always took remarks like that personally, as Emerson meant his readers to do.) Early that fall a present arrived in the mail, an exquisite pastel, dated 1995, of a stretch of countryside at dusk, which hangs today in our bedroom in Baltimore. I think, but don’t know for sure, that the setting is somewhere outside Hartford, where a fete honoring Anthony Caro, Noland, and Olitski was held in April 1994 at the Hartford Art School; typically, Jules seized the chance to begin making prints with a craftsman there, and it may be that he drew the landscape on a subsequent visit. In any case, the scene was “taken” late in the afternoon, from some sort of eminence; the land is already dark (lots of black pastel, magnificent), and the sun is no more than a red streak on the horizon. The sky is layered, with pink, peach, yellow, and umber clouds lower down, a darkish cloud layer—blue or violet with indeterminate smudges—higher up, then the atmosphere gets lighter, more rarefied, the middle levels scored by a sharp instrument so as to suggest wind or simply distance. Some final, wispy clouds nearer to the viewer, little more than colored chalk marks on paper, but clouds nevertheless.

I’ve been looking at it a lot these past few weeks. There isn’t the merest touch of ego to be seen. You could hang it next to a Turner and it would hold its own.

Michael Fried is J. R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities and Director of the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.