Jules Olitski

Spraying It, Not Saying It.

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In 1956, Olitski began teaching at C. W. Post College of Long Island University, where he taught and served as chairman of the fine arts division until 1963. In 1963, he began teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught for four years. In between, Olitski met art critic Clement Greenberg, who helped launch him to stardom and would later call him "the best living painter." Olitski eventually showed his work in more than 150 one-man exhibits, and he was only the third living artist to earn a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A New Kind of Paint Surface

Olitski did not always paint with the thick surfaces of With Love and Disregard. In the early 1960s, he began staining his canvases with dyes of thinned paints. But it was not until 1965 that Olitski used a spray gun, which he rented from a hardware store in Bennington. He credited the discovery to a dream, "lying in bed, imagining a painting."

In a catalog essay for Olitski's work at the 1966 Venice Biennale, Greenberg called Olitski's "grainy," sprayed surface "a new kind of paint surface," which "offers tactile associations hitherto foreign, more or less, to picture-making; and it does new things with color." Greenberg noted the sprayed paint became flat, yet managed "not to violate flatness."

Flatness was a hobbyhorse of the second generation of American abstract artists, like Olitski, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Helen Frankenthaler. Where the Old Masters had banished the flat from their works and replaced it with illusive "tricks" that created depth, Greenberg and company embraced flatness, which they held as intrinsic and inextricable from the canvas.

Olitski's Chinese Dinner Girl (1965) is a vertical canvas (just more than three times as tall as it is wide) with a misty temperament, composed of reds, blues, and purples. Although the paint in Chinese Dinner Girl fills the entire canvas, in other works from this period like #9 Green (1966) and Steamed (1968), Olitski painted opaque, thick lines in a corner of the painting, almost acting like a frame. At first glance, the brush strokes seem like errors, as if Olitski had forgotten to paint up to the edges of the canvas, but the strokes ultimately served to ground the cloudy colors and to introduce tension between the two elements.

Like Chagall's kissing couples and Rothko's rectangles, Olitski's clouds appear to soar out of the picture, and yet they convey weight which grounds them. One writer referred to Olitski's colors as seeming to "float in a spatial vacuum."

Judging the Monoprints

Although his work diverges greatly from Picasso's cubist works, Olitski's evolution of styles and constant redefinition of his artistic vision recalls Picasso's career, which is best described as fashion art. Perhaps like no other artist before him, Picasso kept his finger on the market's pulse, and gave the buying public just what it wanted. Often, Picasso proved quite adept at predicting trends before they began.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.