New York

Jules Olitski

Rubin Gallery

Jules Olitski’s new paintings at Rubin, like most of his earlier spray paintings, seem to deal with the nature of the presence of color. The sense arising from these paintings has been that color does not attain to its authentic presence outside painting because there is no other context in which its abstractness, which has an element of ideality about it, can be secured and used. It is probably the history of painting itself which has taught us to see the colors of things as either contained by them or as adherent to them; if so, then the claim of painting to the raw presence of color makes sense and so does the difficulty of securing the limits of a painting in terms of color. The additional problem which Olitski seems long to have acknowledged is that of how to keep the material nature of paint itself from interfering with the realization of color as presence. For him simply to spray paint over the entire canvas would so isolate that technique as to redouble the problem rather than reckon with it. His solution has been to trail sizeable daubs of paint around two or more edges of the sprayed field, both giving the field its necessary interiority and localizing the aggressive material property of paint at the edges and as a ground. (That a color relation cuts across the relation in substance between the field and the painted edges is proved dramatically in Irkutsk III at Rubin in which almost the only applied paint is a keyhole daub of pink at the left edge which almost unbelievably reads as a patch of ground seen through the sprayed field.)

It is no small matter that all these elements come into balance from a certain fairly specific vantage point. The paintings don’t break down when viewed from the “wrong” distance, rather the sense is that they instruct us as to the perceptual circumstance in which their identity as paintings can be experienced most clearly, and that circumstance is a “proper” position on the viewer’s part. This is quite in keeping with the illusionism in Olitski’s paintings, something which, while I can understand its necessity, has often somehow spoiled them for me. The presence of color in itself is after all something fictive, or very nearly so, and in order for it to be achieved, Olitski’s paintings need that interiority that only a pictorial tradition can afford them. In return Olitski’s paintings certify that tradition in an original way, placing color, one of the constituents of painting, in a structural relation to the painting as a whole which is almost like that of subject matter to traditional figurative paintings.

A couple of the new paintings, especially With Kropotkin at Irkutsk, make use of a meandering painted line which weaves in and out of thefield just inside the paintings’ edges. This appears to be a strategy for minimizing what was the illusionism of the earlier works. The painted line is specific, yet free to enter the field, it can change color in its course, and it can only be grasped visually as a whole when one is in a position to view the field as a whole. This device (if it is a device) actually works best in the recent piece included in the Whitney’s concurrent “Structure of Color” show, easily the grandest Olitski I’ve yet seen.

In a few of the new paintings there occurs what looks like a nod in the direction of Larry Poons, though that appearance may be coincidental. In 7th Loosha for instance, the paint is really piled up in the center of the field and it begins to take on that veined, relief-map look of a Poons; also there is a swatch of unpainted canvas recalling Poons’s recent Elysium Slip. Since I see these aspects as related to Poons, I tend to think that they weaken Olitski’s paintings in which they appear, not because Poons is a lesser painter, but because his paintings have a different kind of interiority and a kind of abstraction different from Olitski’s. Poons’s recent canvases seem to hedge in almost every direction but most noticeably in their tendency to read as aerial views, which ambiguity really leaves the viewer adrift in his perception (maybe that’s what Poons is after). If what I’ve said above applies, then clearly this kind of ambiguity added to Olitski’s paintings is likely to compromise them, perhaps severely. But it isn’t really possible to tell from the show at Rubin if Olitski is initiating a new direction or not. At least he hasn’t weakened his stance.

Kenneth Baker