New York

Jules Olitski

Emmerich Gallery

Those who tend to look unfavorably on the art of Jules Olitski are offended by the sweetness of his color; those who would uphold his work are wont to overlook that color, despite acknowledgement of its importance. The new paintings by Olitski at Emmerich are not likely to alter these circumstances. They are, as usual, overwhelmingly chromatic, the few changes to be noted in them being literally, if not altogether esthetically, marginal.

When the show falls below the general level of handsome, it does so because of some misjudgment of the scale necessary to embody a color in memorable proportions. The vertical or horizontal slats that are the smaller works look like cut-outs of others, and they lack air, presence. They are “drunk up” by the eye too quickly, with the result that they become decorative despite themselves, despite, that is, the artist’s grandiose ambition, as a friend suggests, to “hang the weather.” The more typical wall sized works establish the ambience the painter obviously wants—gorgeous fields of green or lavender or pink or yellow, often now matte in surface and fairly even in value—and envelop the spectator with one pervasive, ever so slightly changing sensation. They are more explicit, more on the surface, than the shifting, effulgent lights of his last exhibition.

But Olitski’s old, and very legitimate problem of the edges haunts him still. If he had not so radically plunged into the amorphous—a color field is likely to be so interpreted when it has hinted of porosity, even if more illusory than real, as here—he would not be in such desperate need of hemming it in somewhere, nor would the hem look so intrusive, so much the last minute solution to a pictorial run out. Many are the failures, in which this intrusiveness produces works that look like a cross between Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko. The success of such art, on the contrary, depends on the prowess with which things like color warmth and density can be related to an edging that functions, and yet hopes to make one overlook its role, as a repoussoir.

This prowess is not always forthcoming. But in Lavender Line, Pink Drift, and Magic Number, some remarkable things happen, and perhaps prowess is too weak a word to characterize them. For instance, the greyed pink, cinnamon chewing gum color of the first picture, of which one cannot say that it stays flat where it sits, or fluctuates more coolly in some lower tissue, runs, far right, into an elegant, delicate tatter of blue, carmine, light emerald, and yellow—not enough of an obstacle to block any determined push of the picture field, but not meeting one, either. The discretion of this meeting of two wildly dissimilar elements, especially when everything is hushed to emphasize it, is a lovely imaginative feat. Elsewhere, the painter is concerned to check the energy threshold of his works by more forceful edging, including, as in Pink Drift, rippled, leftward effects of dragged brush, and puddled heavy globs of pigment that do not quite meet the perimeter. This juxtaposition of bulky matter and soaked in pigment, while carried off with extreme finesse, is basically a naive idea. It has its sources in earlier aspects of Olitski’s art, but has never been so attentively treated and subtly orchestrated as in the pictures mentioned here. One speculates that this has been brought about by the requirement to give greater relief to fields less depth ridden and less densely layered and vapory, than his last exhibited works.

With painterly complexity confined to their rims, one is entitled to ask precisely to what degree Olitski’s pictures are colorist. A single hue does not make a chromatic statement. I find that his canvases, in this respect, are redolent rather than they are expressive, of hue. It is not so much that the colors are muffled or withdrawn—quite the contrary—but that, in the context in which he works, a little color goes a long way. The watermelon pink in Pink Tinge has almost the effect of the flavor and texture of that watery fruit. This does not make Olitski’s pictures any the less delicious; it means only that his is not the most refined palate. But this may be a concomitant of his ability to make the sensations with which he is concerned, still unsurpassed in their vividness and tangibility.

Max Kozloff