New York

Jules Olitski

I don’t know if Jules Olitski is the greatest living painter, as Clement Greenberg once claimed, but his late works certainly offer a supreme abstract version of the “splendid manner,” a term Giovanni Pietro Bellori applied to the paintings of Nicolas Poussin in the seventeenth century. A splendid manner requires above all grand subject matter: in Poussin’s case, scenes from the Bible and Greek myth; in Olitski’s, our origins, both personal and universal, and our common end in death and (one hopes) transfiguration. Bellori considered Poussin the ultimate philosophical painter; Olitski, with these recent works, seems to have become the philosopher of the abstract manner sine qua non, in part through the sheer brilliance and sparkling complexity of his painterliness, in part through his ability to make the animated indefiniteness of his seismic surfaces, surging and swerving in luminous liquidity, seem like a wild analysis of existential concerns.

In the “Origins” series (all works 2000), Olitski broods on his own beginnings, beyond the pale of his memory. Born in 1922 in Snovsk (now Sednev, Ukraine), he emigrated with his mother and grandmother to the United States in 1923; he never knew his father, a commissar executed by the Soviet regime a few months before his son’s birth. In these works, Olitski uses the medium to articulate his earliest, preverbal feelings. These paintings are ineffable, even “infantile,” in the original sense of the term (unable to speak). Olitski’s reflections on his birthplace are as mercurial as his paint, as tropical and stormy as the weather in Florida, where the artist finds himself late in life. In other words, he uses what Greenberg called “Mediterranean style” to make a subjective “statement,” however obscure it may be.

We feel the intensity of Olitski’s statement all the more when it acquires biblical dimensions, as in Third Day, where magnificent black “cracks” fragment the color-saturated surface. I’d even take Olitski’s rendering of eschatological tragedy in Last Judgement over Michelangelo’s more bombastic, crowded scene in the Sistine Chapel: Olitski shows the abyss of nothingness that awaits us, while Michelangelo frets over his place in heaven (will God give him commissions?). Olitski suggests there is no heaven, only mythologized sky, with light breaking through the gathering darkness and brooding clouds. He is in effect exploring his own fragmentary, fleeting, but nonetheless powerful feelings about his origin, universalizing them through the meandering differentiations of painterly surface, nuanced with shifting luminosities and sudden blackness.

Greenberg traced modernist field painting from Titian through late Monet to Pollock and finally Olitski (with smaller steps along the way), and in strictly aesthetic terms Olitski’s paintings (particularly those in the “Celebrations” series) are Titianesque masterpieces—say, Titian in Florida, where light, atmosphere, and water are much more magical than they ever are in Venice. In Greenberg’s thinking, Olitski not only completely gave himself up to feeling but achieved what the critic called a “decorative unity” of surface, which for him signaled mastery of feeling, and with it strength and self-control.

Donald Kuspit