Jules Olitski (1994)
Catalog essay, exhibition at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, New York City, New York, October 4-29, 1994.
I think Jules Olitski is the best painter alive and has been for the last twenty-five years. Though this opinion is probably shared by no more than a couple of dozen others and flies in the face of the sanctity of "pluralism" in the arts, or at least that part of the pluralist attitude which seems to undermine the absolute importance of esthetic excellence in art, I am entirely comfortable with it. My opinion does not arise from theory or principle. It has come to me, through esthetic intuition, as I have looked, over the years, at all the stuff which has been put before us in the name of art. Olitski hangs on as the best of the best.
This kind of narrowness is disturbing, I know, especially when it applies to an artist who is not counted as the best by mainstream consensus. That consensus, however, has always been wrong in its own time.
The approach to art I am asserting here is unconditionally esthetic, and it fits in with a widespread attitude toward art known as Modernism. Modernism has been more-or-less in force in many of the arts for about the last 150 years, and is currently under attack by other strains of thought, such as "postmodernism," most of which I see as degenerated phases of modernism rather than displacements of it. Modernism is a frame of mind or working attitude toward both the making and taking in of art which embodies two primary principles. One, art in the making is self-critical, turning naturally to the best art of the past to emulate the highest standards for the present, bringing to itself whatever changes seem necessary to maintain those standards. Two, art objects are relatively good or not so good, and that this goodness or "quality" must be taken in through feeling and intuition above and beyond the sum of describable parts. The driving force of Modernism is self-improvement, esthetic betterment.
Olitski puts us to the test more than other painters. I say this based on the modernist premise that excellence in art exists apart from style, depiction or any quality which can be put into words. Abstract, realistic, painterly, large, colorful - these are qualities of good painting and bad painting. Nothing specifiable makes a painting good or bad. Any painting of a crucifixion carries all the weight of 2000 years of Christian thought and passion; you can't ask for more "content." But one crucifixion is a good painting and another one isn't. Content is beside the point. A painting is a good painting by virtue of how not what. It is a good painting because of the way the artist painted it. This is as true for Olitski as it is for Vermeer. The reason either painting is a good painting arises entirely from how it was painted. If I think an Olitski is as good as a Vermeer it is not because they paint alike, but because each painter did what he did so well.
The "test," on the other hand, has everything to do with style and method. Olitski is an extreme modernist, perhaps the most highly evolved modernist we have, because his paintings so completely exemplify the modernist concept that one can do anything at all with paint as long as the result is a good painting. Olitski gives us nothing but paint, paint applied with such apparent reckless disdain for our learned ideas of what a painting should look like that he takes the fullest risk a painter can take: that the painting is a mess and nothing but a mess. There are no hooks to grab us, no message, no hidden themes or arcane meanings. These paintings are simply lots of paint laid on thick, pushed around, scraped and spattered and left as is. Aside from a few illusionistic devices there is nothing in these pictures which doesn't look like paint as such, paint as paint. There isn't even much by way of reference to earlier art-making methods. By painting this way Olitski hangs the whole enterprise on how well he makes the picture and implicitly refuses to give us any way into the painting except to stand back and decide, by eye and intuition, whether we like it or not. He won't give us anything else to go by, and by so doing allows his art to be dismissed easily because it doesn't look enough like what we think art ought to look like.
So, take a hard look at these paintings. Come back in a few days and look again. Is this great art or 20 square feet of wasted paint? I've said what I think; size them up and see what you think. More than that we can't do.