Often associated with the Color Field painters and Post Painterly Abstraction, Jules Olitski differentiated himself from these schools in his commitment to the tactile and the painterly in the face of increasingly impersonal “cool” abstraction.
Jules Olitski was born Jevel Demikovsky in Snovsk, Russia, in 1922; shortly after his father was executed by the Russian government. He immigrated to New York City as a child with his mother, who married a man named Hyman Olitsky. Jules took his stepfather’s name, but later changed its last letter because he preferred the misspelling “Olitski” in the catalog of his first U.S. solo exhibition in 1958 (1).
In 1939 Olitski won a scholarship to study drawing at the Pratt institute. Between 1940 and 1942 he studied drawing and portraiture at the National Academy of Design and sculpture at the Beaux Arts Institute.
In 1942, Olitski became a United States citizen. His conscription into the army immediately followed, but he was never posted overseas. During the war years Olitski associated with the Art Students League in New York and became interested in the art of Cézanne, Manet, the Impressionists, the Nabis, and, in particular, the Fauves. Between 1945 and 1949 he painted in a Fauvist style, studied with Chaim Gross, and experimented with semi-abstract sculpture.
With the aid of the GI Bill, Olitski lived in Paris from 1949-1951, where he deliberately isolated himself from both the Old Masters and contemporary artistic trends in order to find his own path. After painting blindfolded for six months, Olitski finally broke free from his academic training and began to explore a more Surrealist aesthetic (2). In 1951 the artist had his first solo show at the Galerie Huit in Paris.
After Olitski returned to the United States that same year, he decided to use the remainder of his GI Bill to get his Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Art Education from New York University (3). In 1958, after several years of art world rejection, Olitski had his first solo exhibition in the United States at the Iolas Gallery in New York City. The artist showed a series of heavily-impastoed canvases reminiscent of art informel. Famed critic Clement Greenberg saw the show, liked Olitski’s work, and invited the artist to participate in a group show at French & Co. along with Friedel Dzubas, Adolph Gottlieb, Morris Louis, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland, and David Smith.
By 1960 an important shift in Olitski’s style signaled the influence of his cohorts at French & Co. The artist moved away from the “Matter Painting” aesthetic of his 1958
Iolas show, instead beginning to stain or dye his paintings like the European tachistes and some of his American counterparts, such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler. From 1963 to 1964 Olitski used this technique almost exclusively, applying watered-down acrylic paint directly to unprimed, unsized canvas. In this way the paint and canvas literally fused together as one flat surface. Instead of painting on the surface, Olitski now painted in the surface. This emphasis on surface flatness reflects the painter’s close relationship with famed art critic Clement Greenberg.
In 1965 Olitski discovered the spray-painting technique, a method that would transform his work and allow him to liberate color by literally atomizing it. Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, Olitski’s monumental sprayed canvases and abstract sculptures earned him great success. The artist exhibited in the 33rd International Venice Biennale (1966), the 30th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting (1966) (First Prize), the Whitney American Art Museum (1967, 1968), Documenta IV (1968), and was honored as the first living American Artist to have a one man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. During these years he continued to show at the André Emmerich and Poindexter galleries in exhibitions that were highly praised by such art critical luminaries as Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, and Rosalind Krauss.
Later in his artistic career Olitski took the physicality of the painted surface to new extremes, loading his canvases with thick layers of gel and acrylic paint, and finishing them with a dusting of sprayed pigment. Until his death in 2007, Olitski continued to explore the tactile nature of paint and the evocative powers of color in his highly textured canvases. His works are now held in the collections of major art institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the National Gallery of Art, among may others.
(1). Kenworth Moffett, Jules Olitski (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1973), 30.
(2). Ibid., 28.
(3). Jules Olitski, “Jules Olitski,” In Writers on Artists (New York: DK and Modern
Painters, 2001), 315.
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