New York

Jules Olitski

Lawrence Rubin Gallery

The recent Jules Olitski exhibition at the Lawrence Rubin Gallery consisted of eloquent, fully resolved paintings, yet exactly how and why they attained their eloquence is something of a mystery. Statements about Olitski’s art tend to hinge upon drawing and color, but seldom, so far as I can recall, the interaction of the two. This problem has been complicated by the fact that the word “drawing” has taken on rather unfavorable connotations in the sixties, at least that kind of drawing which occurs within the boundaries of the picture. Yet Olitski unquestionably draws within his pictures: to be sure that drawing occurs very close to the edges and usually occurs on two adjacent sides, and when that drawing moves too far into pictures, they frequently fail. That is, they become definitely unsuccessful whenever drawing, wherever it occurs, pushes color back from the picture surface. Nevertheless, drawing of a kind does occur in Olitski’s paintings and certainly contributes to their success.

This drawing seems to serve the same purpose as a similar kind of drawing in some of Matisse’s drawings and etchings—I am thinking particularly of the illustrations for the poetry of Mallarmé, many of which contain a double line describing one portion of a figure and a single line to describe the remainder. To my mind, this accomplishes two things, one of them very important, the other less so. The less important thing is that it creates a certain amount of ambiguity about where the edge of the figure actually is. The more important thing is that it establishes a boundary that is surface itself, or a channel of surface and ground that lies between surface and ground. Matisse was, in effect, having it both ways, locking figure and ground into the surface of the picture.

Something of this sort seems to have occurred in Olitski’s paintings for the past number of years and was even, I think, implicit in some of the stain paintings he did before making the spray paintings. In the recent spray paintings, as I have mentioned, this drawing usually occurs at two (and sometimes three) sides of the picture, usually involving one or two of the corners. Olitski himself has spoken of drawing as edge and it seems to me that his drawing near the edge functions, like Matisse’s drawing, to open up rather than push back the surface, only in Olitski’s case it serves to open up the entire picture surface itself. Of course Olitski doesn’t always use this channel that simply: sometimes it has been masked off, sometimes painted over, sometimes both and in every case, or nearly every case, it serves to carry color as well. That is, it opens up not just the surface of the pictures, but the color as well.

Rosalind Krauss seems to have addressed herself to this opening up when she wrote of the surfaces of Olitski’s pictures slanting away from themselves. This certainly seems to be the case in some of the pictures in the present exhibition, particularly in pictures like Muxer and Zuloo. However I think Olitski is remarkable in that this “slanting” occurs in his pictures in so many different ways. In Zuloo, for example, one layer of spray seems to slant behind another like its shadow or reflection across the entire picture surface. In other pictures the centers, which are slightly higher in value than the perimeters, seem to swell out of the surface to produce a fullness and radiance that is remarkable and deeply moving—for example the heavy, black field in Goozler rises to a pale red towards the center left of the picture, yet the black nowhere reads as a shadow behind the surface.

This swelling or slanting is the result not simply of one, but of a complex of factors, not the least of which is the often recognized ability of Olitski’s paintings to declare themselves as shapes, an ability that is, to my eye at least, a characteristic of his best paintings from as far back as 1963, if not earlier. It has to do, as well, with the drawing inside the perimeters of the pictures that I have already mentioned and it also has to do with the character of the surface itself which is thickly and rather evenly painted with sprays of varying densities at various parts of the picture. This paint surface is thick and shiny, containing a relatively large amount of varnish. As a result the paintings have a richness and density of color that is quite unlike stain painting and the stain-like surfaces of the earlier spray pictures. One no longer feels that color is impregnated into the canvas, but rather that color is somehow on it, or above it, and on or above all of it. But this is not exactly what happens, for the paintings seem to do two things at once; they open up space back of the picture plane and swell light and color up, out of it. In any event, whether or not the foregoing was an adequate description, I do think the Olitski exhibition consisted of a series of masterpieces. They display a generosity of feeling that is very rare in art and seem, to my eyes at least, to constitute a kind of celebration.

Terry Fenton