New York

Jules Olitski

Andre Emmerich Gallery

For me, the typical pleasure of Jules Olitski’s painting has been in an austere, sophisticated tastefulness of design given edge by the perversity of faintly evil hues and aggressive textures. He is a forceful, acerb painter, and his sensibility is exceedingly keen, reveling in the sorts of fine-tuned ambiguity that so delight orthodox modernist taste. However, my feeling about his work is ambivalent. For one thing, Olitski’s complete identification with the mighty formalist/historicist position in American art (tyranny or aristocracy, depending on your point of view) makes an independent and clear-eyed response to his work hard even to conceive of. Greenbergian rhetoric and the reactions against it have weirdly enclaved Olitski and the other color-field painters in contemporary criticism; the frontier between them and the rest of art bristles with psychological barbed wire on which many a well-meaning critic has come to grief. What makes this rancorous situation truly strange is that at issue in it are, ostensibly, just objects of pleasure. On the formalist side, the question has seemed to boil down to which, among all available esthetic pleasures, are the most “correct.”

That such questions can ever be decided, or even debated rationally, seems absurd on its face, but if we wish to be objective we must take into account the self-fulfilling potentials of the notion. That it can have real power as a functioning belief is undeniable. Thus “pure opticality” and all the other shibboleths are there in Olitski’s painting, though not there—and I insist they are not—in our experience of the painting, except by willful cerebration.

What is there in our experience is a sense of serene conviction that derives, invisibly, from internalized imperatives. So the question is not what one thinks of the imperatives, but what one thinks of the conviction. To me, it is debilitating. It usurps the place of creative intelligence in the work, renders the work virtually mindless. Decision in Olitski’s painting—where and how to emphasize an edge, for instance—seems feebly arbitrary, and all the evident care in color modulation and reticence in drawing reek of fuss. This is not to deny the aforementioned pleasure, but only to point out what seems to me an essential emptiness. The action in Olitski’s work is always somehow incidental to its main point, which is not there.

It must be admitted that there is plenty of action in Olitski’s new painting, however. His last show tentatively answered the question of where, after its many recent culs-de-sac, color-field painting could go. Leading the way, as usual, Olitski has gone back to his early roots in the long-disreputable postwar School of Paris; or, rather, he has gone ahead to those roots via his increasing preoccupation with what might be called the cuisine of abstract painting, its color-and-texture gastronomy. Tapibs and Fautrier are suddenly acknowledged only to be topped retroactively: this is what their work ought to have looked like. The new Olitski recipes feature knifed-on, “matter”-augmented paint that doesn’t look like paint or much like anything else, either. Its emulsified or oversprayed color—tending to somber in the paintings on exhibition, and to bright and chipper in those reproduced in the catalogue—often has a visual flavor simultaneously as distinct and as indescribable as the taste of Coca-Cola. Here and there drawing advances into the formerly sacrosanct center, but timidly, clinging to features of the topography. All the paintings in the show were vertical rectangles except one, a genuinely daring glum-colored canvas bisected horizontally by a rough, pinkish horizon line (Line Passage 3); it wasn’t quite mean enough really to come off, but it was heartening to see.

Olitski’s choice of titles for his new work stresses eroticism: Passion Flight, Sacred Love, Profane Sleeper, Tiresias View. This seems shrewd as an attempt to broaden the “optical” appeal of color-field by association with sensuality in general. If the paintings looked a little more fleshlike, a little less better-living-through-chemistry, the question of what Olitski’s work is about might become very agreeably complicated; as it is, the sexual resonance seems improbably heady.

In this as in much else, however, Olitski’s resourcefulness is impressive. He seems never to be at a loss and never, unlike some of his peers, driven to desperate measures. Things come to his hand, and he knows what to do with them. One can readily understand why he is held in awe by those who share his assumptions about painting. But to one who doesn’t share those assumptions, it all seems a great waste. So much ambition, and so little—or so much nothing—to show for it.

Peter Schjeldahl