Acclaimed as one of the most innovative post-war American painters, Jules Olitski was also an inventive sculptor and printmaker, and an influential teacher. He was initially trained in New York as an academic realist—“I wanted to paint like Rembrandt,” he often said—but he began to make heavily impastoed monochrome abstractions while studying in Paris, on the G.I. Bill. After returning to the U.S. he abandoned exaggerated physicality and began to concentrate on color. While teaching at Bennington College in the early 1960s, he arrived at the radiant, color-based abstractions that established his reputation. These luminous, economical pictures realized Olitski’s often quoted desire to “spray color in the air and have it remain there.” The seductive, subtly inflected Spray paintings helped to define Color Field painting, and, by seeming to test how spare a painting could be without sacrificing its ability to move us, they suggested new possibilities for abstraction.
Enthusiastic critical response to these works led to Olitski’s inclusion in the 1966 Venice Biennale, the 1967 Tokyo Biennial, Documenta IV, Kassel, 1968, and many other prestigious exhibitions. In 1969 a show of his polychrome sculptures made him one of the first living Americans ever exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum, and in 1973 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts circulated a major retrospective.
Over the following decades, Olitski explored the permutations of his expansive, emptied-out canvases, experimenting with the newest acrylic paint technology. At times he emphasized texture at the expense of color, as though rethinking his early impastos; at other times, he combined aggressively worked surfaces with iridescent hues. These dramatic, opulent paintings appeared to translate the chiaroscuro of Old Master painting (and Olitski’s earliest training) into abstract language.
For more than half a century, from the late 1950s through 2007, Olitski worked constantly, exploring new materials and methods (and complaining of the noise of the unlikely power tools—spray guns and leaf blowers, for example—he sometimes co-opted for his experiments). In 2004 he celebrated his 80th birthday by exhibiting the With Love and Disregard pictures, a series as raucous as his earlier Spray paintings were ethereal. With their tides and clots of dazzling color, these pictures hovered on the brink of garishness, even incoherence, at the same time that they were compelling, sensuous, and knowing. Only a lifetime of making and thinking about paintings could have generated work at once so beautiful, so indifferent to ordinary notions of beauty, and so confident. When Olitski was inducted into the Academy last year, an early Spray painting and a recent work were hung side by side in the annual exhibition. Both pictures looked so fresh and vibrant that one visitor quipped that Olitski was the two best young painters in the show. From first to last, his paintings are audacious, informed by accumulated knowledge, intolerant of the expected or familiar, and deeply moving.