New York

Jules Olitski

Andre Emmerich Gallery

Until now, the times have always been slightly out of joint for Jules Olitski. To have been exploring “the painterly (or ‘das Malerische’) during the sixties,” as Kenworth Moffett put it in 1972, to have reintroduced the traditional “dramatic imbalance and marked variation and hierarchies of accent” of the easel picture, was to be a shady character during that decade.

These recent paintings, however, without presenting any radical departures, fit into such topical, even tired, issues as, say, the poststructuralist concept of absence, the hollow core of culture. Olitski’s work has always consisted of echoes (layers and transparencies), but unlike Sarrasine’s filched effects (according to Roland Barthes’ analysis in S/Z), his echoes echoed themselves. Or as Joseph Masheck put it in 1973, referring to Olitski’s double edges of paint and canvas, “sometimes the work barely stops short of the redundancy of exactly reproducing itself, diminished slightly in size—as by a mirror.” Now Olitski has moved from mere solipsism toward self-negation. The veiling often turns opaque, so that, as in Fourth Presentation, 1983, one sees almost nothing of what’s underneath. All has been sprayed over, canceled out, rather as if blackened from the smoke of a studio fire or grimed with the soot of years of neglect.

Masheck also noted a “Pop side” to Olitski, and this too seems freshly relevant. The most remarkable aspect of these canvases is that they manage to look like photo reproductions of themselves, fragments of paintings blown up for closer, scholarly inspection. What is quite real, even (in its impasto) supremely touchable for doubting Thomases, disguises itself as a trick, an inversion of Abstract Illusionism, in which what is flat is made to look dimensional. (But this is another example of the pieces’ up-to-date popism—the revivification of an unsavory period style.) Partly, this irreality is achieved through an unyoking of color and texture, the former often sprayed on, and thereby etherealized, the latter a transparent gel brushed or troweled on. Richard Artschwager’s Celotex paintings come to mind, and what must have been their inspiration—those cheap reproductions in which an image is printed over a pattern of random strokes pressed into relief on cardboard. Never has acrylic paint been so demonstrably plastic, in all the word’s meanings of shape, polymer, and, especially, artificiality. In a period when oil paint and the personal are so transcendent, this must read ironically.

Like Sherrie Levine, Olitski is appropriating—but only himself. Whereas Levine’s thieveries show how an omnivorous audience macerates works of art into anonymity, Olitski, by introducing his original self as a clone, suggests that there never was an author. It’s not that the beginning has been lost over time, it’s that there never was an origin, only a becoming and ending, a ceaseless rising and falling. Thus, throughout this series there’s a “who’s on top” dialectic: black or color, brushstroke or trowel mark. Everything struggles to the top, aspires toward the condition of surface, but surface itself is unstable. When color is visible it conveys the sense of having worked its way from underneath, like a gas or vapor through an only apparently impermeable texture, as though it has transpired through a process of osmosis and is about to evaporate into the air. The spray technique creates shimmer, dissolution. The impasto makes surface wavy in another sense: it’s like a liquid surface, a body of water covered with the rainbow/sludge of an oil slick. Does it cover an ocean or a puddle? The argument has been made that Olitski’s invented edges were a kind of distraction from the actual edge of the canvas, which then became more continuous with the wall and consequently rendered the work flatter. That’s still true of these edges, so that what the top layer hides may only be another thin layer. But the center remains hidden, and the question of depth becomes moot because unanswerable. Olitski is a master technician, but here he uses technique to prove that formalism must always be rhetorical. It’s the question, not the answer, that matters.

Jeanne Silverthorne