jules olitski at the goldman warehouse
Post #488 • March 8, 2005, 12:23 PM • 51 Comments
"Jules Olitski: Six Decades" is the best show on display in Miami right now. It reminds me of my t'ai chi teacher's martial arts skills: no frills, no nonsense, consummate mastery, and God help you if you get in the way.
Olitski has gotten better with age, and sixty years is a long time to get better. He has spent that time working out a painting motif in the Modernist mold: pure abstraction, and success by any means necessary. This has required his jettisoning perfectly successful styles that he brought to logical conclusions, and he seems to have done so with great courage and adventurous spirit.
The exhibition is prefaced by "Color Field Painting: Jules Olitski in Context," which one is obliged to peruse before entering the Olitski show proper. This is a useful accompaniment that features work by Olitski's contemporaries, although the work in it varies widely in quality. There's a terrible Frankenthaler, a Nolan that is so big and decorative as to come off as silly, and a Walter Darby Bannard whose handsomeness is noticiably compromised by dents and foxing. (I learned from the Beyond Geometry show at MAM that little imperfections that would be unnoticiable in any other kind of painting jump out in minimalist color field works.) On the other hand, there's a show-stealing Friedel Dzubas, whom I think is an underrated painter, an exciting Larry Poons in which violet drips rise upward out of ochre splashes, and a Morris Louis pour in which a veil of umber edged with pinks and corals floats with majesty in a 13-foot-wide expanse.
The Olitski show is divided into four bays, each concentrating on a stylistic period of the artist. The first has him working confidently with big, happy shapes - simple, hand-drawn geometries whose aesthetic seriousness relies almost exclusively on their enormous size. The best of these is One Time (1964, below), a bravely uncomplicated painting that hangs together with great authority and impressive beauty, even while managing to look cute.
The second explores his spray paintings, with luminous clouds of color that evoke galactic distances. It is in this series that Olitski began stopping the color fields short of one or two edges of the canvas, sometimes painting a border on them here and there. Olitski connoiseurs refer to this as moving the drawing to the edge - in other words, putting the figurative elements on the edges of the work in order to make the beautiful expanses of paint read as paintings instead of giant swatches of color. Below, Drakely, 1966.
Next come paintings in which he employs heavy applications of acrylics, which he then dusts with sprayed color. The earlier ones don't come off, and suggest that the edge-drawing strategy solved a serious problem for the artist - his mid-career attempts to put figurative elements in the center of the painting look insipid and stylized (especially Dark Domain from 1981). A few years later, though, he abandoned the edge-drawing and started pushing massive quanitites of irridecent gels around in handsome loops. These tended to compose themselves, especially when he darkened the edges of the canvas slightly to weigh down the centers. Below, Beauty of Lauren, 1989.
The most recent paintings show an enormous level of verve. Using fried-egg shapes on tumultuous backgrounds and the wildest colors available, Olitski makes them hold together as if they were a riot frozen in time. They justify close looking, as the artist employs a huge variety of painting effects involving layers of transparency, pours, smears, rips formed by the unique drying properties of acrylic gloss medium, and stuff I can't explain. Anyone who thinks abstraction doesn't require craftsmanship needs to come see these. Below, With Love and Disregard: Silence, 2002.
Miami's art world doesn't often get to see unmitigated greatness. These recent works are great, the kind of great that inspires a bit of discomfort upon initial viewing. That feeling fades, as areas that first appear grotesque begin to show how well they belong in their place in the composition. They seem to have formed by the power of their own heat and speed, like galaxies, and they reinforce Olitski's place as one of the great talents of the contemporary era.