Los Angeles

Jules Olitski

Nicholas Wilder Gallery

A generous sampling of recent acrylics by Jules Olitski at Nicholas Wilder Gallery demonstrates some slight shift in his recent direction. The major move is a more solid primary coat of pigment laid down in an even layer. Sprays of pink and green, larger dots than previously, are sprinkled across the purple surface, but now float before, in front of that surface. This sense of built up application extends to the addition of the striped strokes bordering along two edges and drawing attention to an upper corner. The loosely applied brushwork has been mixed with, or covered by, a thick layer of clear, shiny glaze. The contrasts of flat, brushed, reflective and sprayed paint are now as extreme as in his works of the early sixties.

Though there is the knowledge that the plane of color is flat, the amount of spatial manipulation these strokes, maskings, and nebulous sprays supply is amazing. The mists mold the color space, atmospherically modulating and mooring it at the edges. The central surface seems to bunch up and pulsate irregularly as the eye attempts to focus not on forms, but a changing color sensation. The sprays confirm the stability of the surface as they suggest an organic disintegration. The boundary strips firm up this optical slipperiness; sometimes quietly and ambiguously, as with the masked edges, at other times overcompensating with the violent slap of pigment strokes.

With due respect to Olitski’s contribution and daring in his ability to charge a field with color, I remain generally unconvinced by most of the works seen thus far, for I feel they fail to hold up in retrospect. Generally ignored has been Rothko’s role in preparing the way for Olitski with broad areas of agitated color films completely held within the bounds of a soft framing edge. The brilliant washes and sprays are major innovations but Olitski’s compositional taste for large-small (elephant-mouse) relations usually stretches the tensions between the open, generous areas and the tiny elements to the point of irritation. It reestablishes the older concept of pictorial composition through the adjustment of weights and balances, but also pushes it in several different and unfortunate directions. In the works of the early ’60s, the green and blue dots opposed to the reds and maroon swaths often seem wildly humorous, or cute, like peas or marbles swimming down a gullet or about to be sat upon and crushed in the corner. In other cases these relationships are as strained and obvious as Klee’s coy introduction of a dot, a letter form or an arrow, put in seemingly to explain a too oblique or undefined situation. While such comical contrasts no longer occur, there is still the quality of a (perhaps necessary) determined attitude to decorate the edges to restore a form or forms; in effect it is an admission that a saturation of color alone cannot sustain the burden of bearing the entire pictorial field, or that he stubbornly insists on a theatrically jarring change in the pacing of sensations. His dependence on graphic marks often resembles nothing more than “keeping his hand in.”

It should be noted that Olitski’s advancing fields are easily achieved almost exclusively through the use of warm and high key colors and when “cool” colors have appeared as the central field they are in the warmish temperature ranges of exotically Near Eastern tertiary choices of purple or chartreuse. Only turquoise is lacking from what is essentially the palette of Bonnard. It is significant that his compositional modes have changed little in a half-dozen years; only the “look” of the surface achieved by switching tools and technical procedures.

In a period when the best major art has aspired to tough conceptualizing expressed through uncompromising clarity, it appears a curious anomaly that such beautiful fuzziness, calculated to be so pleasing, should be so widely and highly acclaimed.

Fidel Danieli