New York

Jules Olitski

Knoedler & Company

“Jules Olitski—Matter Embraced: Paintings 1950s and Now” was a fascinating pairing of some of the artist’s early “Matter” paintings with examples of his ongoing “Embraced” series. The former, which were made between 1957 and 1959, situate abstracted figures on atmospheric grounds, sometimes almost merging the two. The latter, from 2004 and 2005, are mostly abstracted landscapes and seem to hold cosmic significance. “Embraced” here has multiple meanings and associations: the enclosure of the landscapes depicted by squiggly painted inner frames; the erotic energy of the compositions; and Olitski’s love affair with color (clearly visible in Embraced: Yellow, Embraced: Turquoise, and Embraced: Yellow and Pink [all 2005]).

Over the years (he was born in 1922), Olitski’s handling of paint has grown looser and more rambunctious; the consistency of his application has thinned, and his colors have grown more luminous. Correlate with these changes, the mood of his work has shifted from subtly melancholy to overtly ecstatic. Indeed, his new gestural paintings have a fresher, freer, more expansive, devil-may-care look than his earlier works, which appear labored and uptight in comparison. The earlier works are supposedly indebted to Jean Dubuffet, but the influence of Chaim Soutine seems more clearly evident. Olitski’s new paintings turn Soutine’s wild handling into a joyous Hasidic dance.

One cannot fully grasp Olitski’s stylistic joie de vivre without understanding certain characteristically Jewish attitudes to life. Harold Rosenberg observed that a good many Abstract Expressionists were Jewish and argued that their manner of abstraction involves a specifically Jewish sense of dynamic revelation, as well as a Jewish iconoclasm. I think that this is also true for Olitski. Just as he has become more conscious of his Russian roots, he has also become more conscious of his Jewishness (though the early Bathsheba II [1959] suggests that his work has always been influenced by it to some degree).

On the basis of the early paintings, Clement Greenberg—the preeminent modernist critic, who, among others, has also written about the “derivation” of modernist critical purity from Jewish critical purity—invited Olitski to exhibit at French & Co. in 1958 and 1959. So it’s sad that, in an essay called “On Himself,” Olitski pays scant homage to Greenberg, who always supported him and has written tellingly about him. In conversation, Olitski has reduced Greenberg to a thumbs-up, thumbs-down critic, with no acknowledgment of the sharp mind and outlook that informed such seemingly precipitous judgments. Be that as it may, Olitski hopes to enter the paradise of painters, as Paradisio, 2004, suggests. But there’s a stormy, even apocalyptic look to his vision of the afterlife, as there is to all of his new paintings. They are full of unresolved conflicts, between light and dark tones, smooth and raw gestures, intense and muted colors. Clearly, Olitski remains uncertain about how deserving he is of paradise, let alone what his place might be.

Donald Kuspit