Jules Olitski (1994)
Catalog essay for the exhibition at the New Gallery, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, February 25 - March 25, 1994.
This show of new paintings by Jules Olitski is a great event for our modest gallery.
I think 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 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 seeks 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. That doesn't mean I'm right, of course. It is OK to wonder why these blotted, gaudy tangles and wiped slabs of shiny acrylic are great art. If you don't think much of these paintings, or if you don't think much of Rembrandt, for that matter, that's fine. The paintings don't care. How many people stand before Rembrandt in awed reverence and don't get Rembrandt at all? They've been told it's great art, so they go and look and agree. It could be Elvis on Velvet. They are not experiencing the art, they are acquiescing to opinion about it. If the picture is not experienced, if it does not come across intuitively, through feeling and feeling only, as a fine, refreshing esthetic pleasure unalloyed by rule or measure, a pleasure seized by unreasoned comprehension and realized simply between you and the painting, then that Rembrandt is just one more brown 17th century Dutch painting hanging there looking back at you from the wall. If you don't feel what's there in Rembrandt, or Olitski, or Matisse or Titian or Giotto, for that matter, all you can do is go back and take another look. Get familiar with the art, but don't try to make yourself like it. There is no obligation. It is there for our pleasure. Don't waste time on it unless it can give you that pleasure.
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.
It follows that putting esthetic betterment first introduces permission to change art - radically if necessary - in order to keep art as good as it can be, and this, in turn, has led not only to dramatic changes in art in modern times but also to the vulgar attitude that "anything can be art." An art system which suppresses accepted standards in favor of individual judgement will naturally encourage a messy multiplicity of artistic styles and lead to a kind of esthetic anarchy which will eventually challenge the very principles of esthetic freedom which engendered them in the first place. As anyone who reads the art magazines knows, visual art at the end of the 20th Century is in a condition of fashion-driven turmoil. When anything goes, everything goes; hype and novelty rule, and esthetic standards, which, by their limiting nature, stand in the way of commerce, are attacked and dismissed as trivial or even non-existent. We are in this stage of modernism now. Despite the world of difference between them, Olitski is as much a part of it as Warhol.
Art is a working-up of materials toward a non-utilitarian end, and the vast changes wrought on art in the time of modernism are material changes. These material changes are "important"--more than "just material"--when the new art is perceived to be good and questions are asked about the relationship between the material and stylistic changes, which are describable, and the goodness of the art, which is not.
In painting the change began with the French Naturalists in the 1830's and 1840's and was manifested most forcefully some time later by Manet, who turned against all the tightly rendered, dull colored narrative paintings of his contemporaries - all those "stews and gravies," as he called them - and went back to Goya and Velasquez to pick up the light, richly-colored painterly freshness he wanted for his art. As Impressionism proceeded painting abandoned grandiose narrative and turned to the common object, as if to say what counts is the painting and not the story, and paint itself came out from behind tight depiction and began to show up as distinct, separate bits and pieces. Painting began to insist that it be evaluated on its own terms, and paint itself, the medium of the art, began to declare itself as the vehicle of value in art, much as non-referential sound had always been the vehicle of value in music.
The history of modern painting since Impressionism has been a succession of more-or-less successful affirmations that a painting need be nothing more than paint on a surface. Although Cubism never abandoned subject matter it certainly dismembered it. Abstract Expressionism threw subject matter to the winds, for the most part. By the middle of this century it was well established that virtually any coherent entity could be put before us as art, and by now almost everything imaginable has been.
In the midst of this chaos, however, there are artists who disregard fashion and the market and take their own course. A colleague, in conversation, referred to Olitski's attitude toward prevailing opinion as one of "sovereign disinterest" - not a very catchy phrase, but certainly accurate. In the mid-60's Olitski evolved an entirely original and compelling method of painting, perhaps marginally influenced by the "unfurleds" of Morris Louis, of emptying out most of the central area of the canvas in order to fill it with a fine mist of colored acrylic spray paint, "making" the painting, declaring it to be more than merely a sprayed surface, by dragging lazy trails of thickly brushed contrasting paint along one or more of the edges. In the 70's the spray gave way to scraped acrylic gel, very minimal early on and later more varied and densely applied, rougher, sometimes spattered, scrubbed and scraped, sometimes edge-drawn. This went on for some years until Olitski did a number of colorful, expressionist paintings infused with iridescent and interference colors and often finished with a value-altering, sometimes raking dark spray. These paintings are the close ancestors of the paintings we have here.
Around 1988 Olitski settled into a method which has sustained him since, although, to my eye, some of the paintings in our show are a clear move away from it. These paintings of recent years were made by laying the canvas flat and painting it (usually) black. Then Olitski literally got on top of the canvas and stroked broad swaths of color-flecked acrylic gel onto the canvas with a painter's mitt, working it simply and easily within the edges, back and forth, as if scrubbing a floor or washing a window. The pattern is deliberately mundane; there was no effort made to pictorialize or force bravura effects. Olitski's scrubbing, like Matisse's washed colors or Picasso's line, laid the ground for art of the highest order on the simplest terms.
When the gel surface was sufficiently dry Olitski hit the plowed field with various fluid acrylics, including metallics, interferences and iridescent colors, flowed on, brushed or sprayed on a usually horizontal, sometimes upright canvas. Often the surface was pelted with dollops of paint, left to dry, undisturbed, where they landed. The colors were not applied to conform to the underlying strokes; one bunch of strokes is not one color and another bunch another color. Instead, light and dark play haphazardly across the whorls, scallops and hairpin turns of underlying gel like light across a cloud, as seemingly effortless and easy-going as the lackadaisical recurved loops of gel they so capriciously hit and miss. Countering these colors is a dark spray, sometimes applied head-on and sometimes at a low angle across the high relief of the painted surface, creating instant shading on the same side of every ridge and hillock. This spray exaggerates the appearance of high relief artificially so that the various mounds and striations stand forward visually more than they do actually. Because the illusionism - the "3-D" of the painting - is so haphazardly mixed between actual and artificial relief, and because Olitski makes no effort to delineate or set apart large areas, the pictorial effect, like that of the high Cubism of Picasso and Braque around 1910 and 1911, is one which declares illusionism in every square inch but allows no overall illusionistic clarity. No large area is allowed to sit back or come forward, and the small areas, like waves in the ocean, frustrate discovery of any consistent scheme of trough and crest. What we have, in the Cubism of 1910/11 and the Olitski of '88-'92 is a first glance impression of a highly illusionistic surface deliberately constructed to be inconsistent. The pictures are telling us to accept this "illusion of illusionism" and stand back and let them come across whole.
When we do this, when we stand back at proper viewing distance from the Olitski painting of this period, it is as if all the calculated visual contrivance and delicate carelessness of the process turns the whole surface into a beautiful cloud of contrived insubstantiality, as if all the clumps, protrusions, seams and ridges, and sprays and globs, all the obviously weighty paint and value contrasts and playful color were one big illusion in itself, ready to disappear at the turn of a switch or blow off in the breeze, as if the color were more a smell than a substance. The paintings of this period put me in mind of the aching sweetness of the slow movements of some of Mozart's piano concertos, with their resonant silences and artless, unadorned harmony. Incidentally, it may be the esthetic weight of these peculiar attributes which leads me to prefer the paintings done in the lighter overall values which by nature enhance delicacy and value contrast.
The paintings in our show are, all in all, lighter in value than the paintings described above. The pictures here which are most like the '88-'92 paintings are Center Unbound, Goddess Love, Spirit Unbound and Celebrations. The others, to my eye, are making a move into new stylistic territory. I think we are looking at masterpieces here. They are all so good, and so new (to art if not to diehard Olitski fans) that I find rating one painting against another as hard as evaluating my own new paintings. I can, and will, come up with favorites in either case, but I'm not secure in these judgements, and I know too well from experience that I've got to see these paintings, like my own, some months or even years down the road before I can feel I know which paintings work best.
Center Unbound and Spirit Blush, in particular, though they take part in some of the recent changes in Olitski's art, are founded on the broad, lazy loops of thick, lightly sprayed ochre-colored gel of the earlier paintings. Compare them to the squirming, multicolored Anonymous Spirit, its violently inflected surface relatively unmarked by blots and spray; it may be the furthest departure from the earlier paintings. The others in the show lie between, stylistically, and I'm going to take the liberty of neglecting certain paintings, as good as they are, to concentrate on a couple which take up a middle ground, and, for the time being, look like the best pictures in the group: Lovers Magic and Flare.
These two paintings are lighter over all in value, they are more vigorously stroked and the strokes are more furrow-and-ridge than the labile slabs of the '88-'92 paintings. There is a vivid sense of compression in contrast to the free and easy recurved spread and return we saw earlier. The earlier paintings were filled; these are packed, and the packing and the consequent pressure contribute to the increased sense of animation which comes across from them.
The paintings of the last 4 or 5 years, though densely filled, declared, by the indolent wandering of the stroke, that the hand turned back from the edge just because the edge was there, and would be content to continue, in its splendidly indifferent way, as long as there was canvas to cover. Now we see a more belligerent stroke, impatient with the edge, perhaps impatient with the innate lenience of the method itself. The strokes have broken out of their zones and have begun to cut across each other, pushing and shoving, jostling for territory. This quality is most readily seen in Lovers Magic (which, is, for the moment at least, my favorite painting in the show), where the paint is so jammed and so close-valued that the strokes run the danger of losing their discreteness, turning the painting into a virtually undifferentiated mass of tinted gel. (I say "danger." Who knows? In Olitski's hands that mass of gel might be just another great picture.)
Though I think it may not be quite the all-out masterpiece that Lovers Magic seems to be, Flare is, frankly, a bit easier to write about, and certainly flows over with rich bits of Olitskian magic. We see immediately that nothing is represented--no houses or people or trees, nor any hint of realistic depiction. (These paintings are intransigently nonrepresentational.) There are, furthermore, no "areas," no delimited sections setting off other delimited sections, no blue square next to a red circle. This painting, like those of the 1948-195O Jackson Pollock, is a tangle of painted line, though Pollock's line was applied and Olitski's line is cut through the paint to the base, like sgraffito. Affective color occupies the picture but does not localize; almost any color you find turns up in a dozen other places on the canvas.
Flare provokes particular interest, again in contrast to the earlier paintings, because it introduces another kind of illusionism, and takes it further than the other paintings in the show. The principal color in Flare is a medium value cold metallic grey-brown which has mixed somewhat with certain other colors which stay close in character and value. This is the gel body which Olitski cuts into the furious tangle which makes up the foundation of the painting. What is new is that the light values in the troughs of the cuts, pale gold for the most part, create the illusion of light standing behind the painting rather than flickering or streaming across it. This, in turn, visually projects the ropy mass of darker gel out in front of itself, making it look like an independent, suspended unit, like the lead in a stained glass window. The illusion is compounded by the black, grey, dark blue and gold splotches and blobs which, by lying squarely on top of the sgraffitoed gel, in different form and darker value, form another frontal set of marks. Taken together with the in-and-out conformations of some of the gel drawing an impression is given to the eye that the whole set of marks is hanging in mid-air, or floating suspended in some transparent medium. None of these things, as such, make Flare a good painting; they are merely dynamics of a painting which I think is a very good one. But they certainly point to the mastery of a medium, as we see Olitski's hand and eye turning palpably massive batches of gelatinous polymer gel into something of almost ethereal lightness.
The central massing of specks, globs and patches of paint is the most surprising of the new moves in these paintings. This is shown up most dramatically by the dark grey and blue and pale gold blotches around the middle of Flare but is also evident in Lovers Magic, Spirit Love and Goddess Love. Centering has never been a characteristic of Olitski's art; his breakthrough paintings of the late '60s emptied the painting out and pushed the loaded mark of the brush out to the edge, and his later paintings are almost always either all-over or asymmetrical. It is surprising to see it here and to see it working so well in the paintings where it is most evident, such as Flare and Spirit Blush. Centering of strong elements in a painting is risky (unless it is the sole constructive means, as in Noland's Targets) because the painting can easily start turning around the center, breaking compositional design and balance into a simple wheel. This doesn't happen in these paintings because the "background" - the distinctly marked body of paint - is so firmly set and boldly composed, allowing the central massing of the globs and spatters to produce an illusion of further depth, as discussed above. Olitski's sure-handed sense of value and volume helps, as does the wild all over energy of the drawing and the extravagant insouciance of the method itself. These qualities conspire to deprive centering of any constructive or compositional pressure on the painting, leaving the centered marks free merely to add color and increased depth illusion.
I think 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.
Undersigned: "Darby Bannard,
Coral Gables, Florida,
February 1, 1994."