Tuesday, 25 September 2007


JULES OLITSKI (1922 – 2007)

(First published 11th September 2007)

The paintings of Jules Olitski belong to a branch of Minimalism called Lyrical Abstraction. The label is unhelpful since much abstract painting is variously lyrical throughout the 20th century, but Olitski’s work takes up key issues of Minimalism, in shedding rigorous geometry or drawing for distinctive qualities of pigment and novel application, for the definition or discernment of colour, its size, shape and constitution. Minimalism is sometimes divided between Process and System in the emphasis given to materials or design. Olitski remained true to these concerns throughout his career, although they ceased to hold wide interest by the 80s.

The course of Minimalism is also discussed in Posts 24, 32, 33 and 47. Where Stella measures stripes and strict symmetry against industrial paints and brushing on an imposing scale, for Olitski it is firstly the more erratic pouring and staining to a support that measure shape and relations within a painting, as in Potsy (1960). The playful sexuality is unusual for Olitski, but the complementary flowing shapes, perhaps cellular in subdivision, even their placement, off-centre to a diagonal axis, nevertheless prompt consideration of affinities and proximal symmetries. The relaxation to technique negotiates a looser organisation of shapes and colours and so celebrates organic shapes and a more fluent approach to painting. Similarly, an Untitled Sketch (1963) indicates these elementary placings within the frame, as conditions for bolder applications by paint.

Yet to pour or stain as painting then invites questions of scale, support, pigment and solution, and with advocates such as Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis commanding the technique, not surprisingly Olitski soon turns to other means to structure colour and design. He turns to industrial spray guns by the mid 60s, to their vaporous forms, radically thinned pigment yet brilliant colour, as in Shoot (1965) or Untitled – 3975 (1968). Here transitions from one colour to another become especially subtle, soon beg questions of colour definition and shape, of proportions to the frame, as a measure. And again the sense is of a release or dilation of all within the frame or edge, a delicate balance in scale between colour and design taken to the edge, and edge brought to bear on these matters, as measure enough.

So, one set of freedoms come at a price of greater reliance or prominence for another constraint. As a metaphor, the pictures take on a contemplative acceptance of this balance and that between particulars of accident and overall design. Olitski is more severe or Minimal, than similar sentiments in Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Frankenthaler or Louis, essentially pits colour fields (see also Post 18) against edge, or matches drawing to edge.

Next Olitski is drawn to more spattered spraying, by reduced pressure to the gun, modified solution to the pigment, as in Something Else (1967-8) or Orange and Grey (1970) where edge or frame is now accentuated by line, while colour definition and intensity assume sublime nuance. In the 70s Olitski introduces more textured surfaces or supports to his spraying; combines impasto gesture with sprayed colour, but the two only beg other combinations, ultimately look mannered for their preference.

Olitski has no interest in pursuing his support to architecture or installation, as in a Daniel Buren or The Surface and Support Group for example, has no interest in allowing more elaborate pattern, including depth and concrete motif, as in firstly Frank Stella, then The Pattern and Decoration Group, say. So by the 80s Olitski’s project is more circumscribed by technique, more conservative for materials. He can vary and integrate extravagant textures and gestures with his spray clouds of colour, as in See Didache (1982) but the results only look more familiar, even traditional, recall his training in Paris and the high pastes and impastos of Jean Fautrier or Philippe Hosiasson. Later efforts such as Shira (1990) and Once in Segovia (1999) render the chemistry of textures and sprayed colour as a tortured, even kitsch equation.

He then returns to more gestural colour, more integrated line as in Embraced Black Ambid (2005) or Wandering Bilbao (2004) but while works no longer flourish the gulf between rugged surface and sprayed colour, shape and frame, they then leave design and pattern precious, idle. In a work such as Elegy (2002) he returns to the circular forms that recall Potsy (1960), now stripped of the erotic, further dispersed across the picture (even while frame remains carefully registered) and variously accommodated by shifting tone and shape to a ground that offers so many variations, it scarcely serves as a ground. The work is sober rather than serene, terse rather than transcendent, captures a grudging conclusion to a Minimalist conviction.

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