White-haired and slightly stooped, but with a strong voice and clear eyes, Jules Olitski talked about his life and art to a rapt audience last Saturday at the Redfern Art Center at Keene State College. The Thorne-Sangendorph Gallery, several buildings away, is showing a mini-retrospective of his work, done over the past ten years. The show commemorates as well the opening of the Thorne-Sagendorph ten years ago – its opening show, in 1993, was an exhibit of Olitski’s paintings.
Jules Olitski came to prominence in the early sixties, in what has been called “the second generation” of abstract artists. He was known for his color-field paintings, elegant canvases with minimal textural and color variation. While the color-field movement was perhaps a reaction to the nervous energy and excess of the abstract expressionists that came before, Olitski’s work over the ensuing years has turned around 180 degrees. The current show is a display of creative force, exuberant and deeply moving.
During an interview conducted by John Walters for NHPR’s Front Porch, the assembled glimpsed the heart and mind of one of the leading artists of our time.
There is something in the Jewish tradition, especially if you are of Russia-Jewish heritage, as is Olitski, that says life, and everything in it, can be explained by a story. When Olitski was asked by Walters how he would sum up his current show, especially his recent foray into landscape painting, Olitski took us back to his childhood in Brooklyn.
Raised by a brutish and violent stepfather, Olitski says he is lucky to be alive. A lad with artistic leanings did not have an easy time of it growing up in an immigrant household in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. He snuck literature into the bathroom and read while his family was asleep – “It was safe and I could be myself”. Literature and art, he said, saved him. “I wanted to get as far away from that life as I could go. Art allowed me to do that.” He met, while in high school, a mentor, Sam Rothbort, whom he called “a real artist” who lived in what was then the rural outskirts of Brooklyn. He taught the young student that in art “everything comes from nature”. To this day, says Olitski, when he is stuck for a color, he goes to nature. A postcard from his old friend, whom he’d lost touch with for years, had turned up recently. “It was very lyrical” Olitski said, “Something like Blake.” It reminded him, he said, of the meeting place between abstract art and the landscapes he has done in the past ten years.
“There really is no difference” (between the landscapes and abstracts), he expanded, several stories later. “My homes are on the water – the Florida Keys in the winter, a New Hampshire lake in the summer. About ten years ago, I began to think, sitting out looking at a sunset, ‘Why don’t I do this?’ I set up by the water. Looking at a sunset, I’d think, ‘Look what the Creator does, just like that! I work my ass off!’ My pictures were dreadful!” “But”, he continued, “I found myself getting closer and closer in what I was doing to nineteenth century painting. One day I noticed a postcard on the refrigerator. My wife and I travel, and on one trip she’d brought back a postcard from France of a Delacroix painting called “The Sea at Dieppe”. I wanted to cry! I knew suddenly how to do it. It has to do with values- light and darks, and how they translate into color. Besides, I get a kick out of it, like a child – making paintings that look like something – the sea, the sky!”
Olitski came back to the story of his formative years as an artist, a topic he clearly relishes. He attended the National Academy of Art, and the Beaux Arts Institute before leaving the country to study in Paris on the GI Bill. “I had an identity crisis in Paris, being away from everything I knew. After that, at the funeral for my grandmother, I made a life decision, to become an artist. Art was something beautiful and more than myself.”
Olitski tells how in Paris his teacher, Ossip Zadkine, a sculptor, would berate his many American students, saying Americans make good plumbers but should leave the art to Europeans. As art history goes, Zadkine had it all wrong – Olitski had the last laugh. He became part of an explosion of creativity that birthed a new, energetic abstract art. It started in the forties and put American painting in the forefront of modern art. But as part of the “second generation” of abstract artists, it was not easy going. “It took me forever to find a gallery. I would get good responses but the gallery people would say they didn’t need me – they already had DeKooning, Gottlieb, Pollock. They’d say, ‘Go see the Cedar Boys'”(referring to the famous Greenwich Village bar where those painters hung out). “But I wasn’t interested in becoming an acolyte. I thought, ‘I’ll go when I’m their equal.'” Then he observed, with both irony and regret, “But by the time I did they had all left or died.” He added, “I wish I hadn’t missed Pollock!”
Olitski described his artistic break-through: “I could draw everything well. But I got to a point where I thought about my childhood decision to be an artist. I asked myself, ‘Is that dream still alive?’ I know how to draw what I see, but do I know how to look within?” He wrapped a blindfold around his eyes, and began to paint, using carefully laid out colors. “I did many paintings like this. Sometimes I would peek, add a color here and there. When I was finished it didn’t look like art to me, but it looked fresh!” And then he added, “I was relieved. I thought, ‘That child is still alive and he’s saying something to me.'”
The child that speaks to Olitski is both joyous and emphatic – no babbling here!
Planets, galaxies, and bio-morphic ovals of reds, oranges, bright yellow-gold, and green clash and swirl. Paint is applied with gusto. In some places the impasto is so thick the paint has cracked. Says Olitski, “Art before the Renaissance is static, nothing changes. In all art afterwards everything moves, everything is thrust and counter-thrust”. This credo is epitomized in paintings such as “Memoirs: Green, Orange, Crimson”, and the series titled, “With Love and Disregard.” In these paintings, shapes of primary colors tug at one another in energy-charged tidal waves. It is evident even in the small canvases — “Passage:Green”, “Temptation: Dream Yellow”, or “January Dream: Purple”, each its own world of colliding colors and shapes. In these paintings Olitski seems to let go an existential yelp, “Against all odds, I am here!”
A child-like quality extends to some of the figurative paintings. “Ariadne” is composed of a primitively rendered orange figure next to blocks of blue, white, green, magenta. Yet a series of figure drawings nearby – including the superbly drawn “Grecian Beauty”, reveals his ability as a draftsman, often eschewed for a more robust effect.
Yet while this show attests to Olitski’s gutsy-ness as a painter, a willingness to “take no prisoners”, there is a balancing sensuality, even a sweetness. The group of paintings made up of swirls of metallic paint, that includes “Bacchus Tango”, and “Hot Pursuit”; in landscapes such as “Islamorada Spirit”, or “Golden Legend”, in which an orange sun, white clouds, green and orange sea encircle and embrace one another, there is delight in the “stuff” of paint, but they are more Beethoven than Wagner.
As Olitski states bluntly, “There is much to do with pleasure in art. Otherwise, who needs it?” But while this pleasure in the sensual aspects of paint can, in some works, become overblown and perhaps like too much dessert, others are subtle and deft.
There are paintings made up of gossamer layers, like the seven veils of Salome, which dance before the eyes in illumined arabesques. These works, among them “Hierarchy of Light”, and “Mythic Sunrise Journey” are visual metaphors for a spiritual journey to the illumined center. Having just seen the “Late Paintings” exhibit of Turner at the Clark Museum, I could not help think of these works. It is as though Olitski took the atmospheric sea-skies of Turner and put them into the center of his canvas. The sky has become the field.
During Walters’ interview Olitski stated his emphatic belief that structure is the most important aspect of a painting. These latest works on exhibit at Thorne-Sagendorph certainly do not “feel” structured. Or, properly, you can not see the structure. It lies more in the integrity of the painter’s soul. “Painting”, said Olitski, “is a moral and spiritual undertaking.” Layer upon layer of paint is the bloom, “the green fuse” the artist’s drive to truth and beauty. Olitski believes deeply in this drive. When I asked the artist later in the afternoon, “Where do you start?” he quoted Matisse: “You stand in front of the canvas and you weep, ‘How dare I do this?’ You put down a green, a red, a little more green, composing in the same way as Bach or Beethoven. Pretty soon it becomes very important that it be beautiful and have meaning.” He paused a moment, gathering himself, “You fashion as the Almighty fashioned man out of clay, then breathed Life into him.”
The show at Thorne-Sagendorph, ten-years’ worth of exploration by a well-seasoned and devoted artist of the depths and boundaries of his art, brings together the many tributaries that have fed the rich soil of this painter’s oeuvre: the abstract and figurative, painting and sculpture, the visionary and the humble; the holy and the hubristic.
If you have any of the child still in you, and can rejoice in color and form and sheer kinetic energy, these paintings will speak to you. And if you can take simple pleasure in a beautiful sunset, these paintings will speak to you too.
Toward the end of his talk with Walters, Olitski told of the transforming experience of seeing a Rembrandt at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, as a boy of seventeen. He waited, he says, for the guard to turn his back, and touched it. “I guess I expected a miracle to happen”, he says, when a thought lights up his face. “And it did.”
“Jules Olitski, A Ten-Year Retrospective” runs through October 12th.