SynopsisJules Olitski was a Russian-born American painter who was instrumental in the development of the Color Field school. Like his contemporaries Frankenthaler and Louis, Olitski stained the surface of the canvas in a technique that reacted against the gestural brushwork of , and with its focus on material and surface, eliminated the illusion of depth. Though extremely important in the early development of Color Field, he spent most of his career out of the limelight, and his lasting influence has not equaled that of colleagues like Helen Frankenthaler.
ChildhoodJules Olitski was born after his Bolshevik father was executed by the White Russian army in Snovsk, Ukraine in 1922. Soon after, his mother escaped with him to the United States and started a new life in Brooklyn, New York, where she remarried in 1926. Born Jevel Demikovski, he adopted the name of his mother's new husband, Hyman Olitsky, but disliked his stepfather greatly. He changed the last letter of his surname later in life after a clerical error.
Early TrainingOlitski showed an early talent for drawing and began taking art classes in the city during his teens. Olitski grew up in a very modest household and in 1939 he won a scholarship to the Pratt Institute. He studied at the National Academy of Design until 1942, during which time he also took classes at the Beaux Arts Institute on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He served in World War II after completing his studies, which allowed him to attend the Ossip Zadkine School in Paris on the G.I. Bill. This funded the education of many other artists destined to become major members of the second generation of Abstract Expressionism. While in Paris, Olitski also studied at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, having his first one man show at the Galerie Huit in 1951.
Olitski moved back to New York in 1951 and began studying at New York University, where he earned a B.A. in Art and an M.A. in Art Education in 1954. He took a position as the head of the fine arts division at C.W. Post College of Long Island University in 1956, where he remained for seven years.
During this time, Olitski began to receive recognition in New York as an artist. He exhibited at Iolas Gallery in 1958, and in 1959 he held his first one man show in the city at French & Co. gallery, where the renowned critic Clement Greenberg was a consultant. Greenberg became his steadfast champion and guided his career to its zenith.
Mature PeriodBy the late 1950s, the gestural abstraction of the New York School began to give way to a group of younger painters who reacted against Action Painting, with its heavy impasto and distinctive brushstrokes. They sought to remove evidence of the hand of the painter in a style dubbed, 'Post-painterly Abstraction', by Clement Greenberg. Olitski, along with Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Kenneth Noland, and Morris Louis were the pioneers of this movement. One branch of Post-painterly Abstraction, of which Olitski was a part, employed techniques that included staining the canvas with acrylic pigment to create works called 'Color Field' paintings. Color Field painters stained the actual surface of the canvas, which eliminated the illusion of depth to an even greater degree than their forebears.
When discovered by Greenberg, Olitski was creating monochrome canvases in an Abstract Expressionist idiom influenced by painters like . However, in the following years he began using a variety of colors and new techniques marked by experimentation with media and method. His experiments with staining the surface of the canvas can be seen in works like Cleopatra Flesh (1962), which feature the bright dyes that mark his work of that period. During the 1960s, Olitski changed his style rapidly. In 1964 he began using rollers to press paint into the canvas in wispy sheets of almost uninterrupted color, like in Tin Lizzie Green (1964). The surface is broken only at the edges, where Olitski used masking tape to cover the borders, and later painted another color.
Olitski's most important breakthrough came in the Spring of 1965, when he began using spray guns to apply paint. The process of laying down an unprimed, unstretched canvas and spraying simultaneously with several guns was groundbreaking. It removed all vestiges of drawing and the artist's hand. It was considered by some critics - including Michael Fried in his introduction to Olitski's 1967 show at the Corcoran Gallery - to be the apotheosis of the Color Field movement because it, "[made] possible the interpenetration of different colors, the intensity of each of which appears to fluctuate continuously," more fully than any other technique before. Fried went on to say that this interpenetration of color created a new sensation of depth in modern art, "by atomizing color Olitski has atomized, even disintegrated, the picture surface as well." This elimination of depth and new understanding of the picture surface comes closest to Olitski's own intention that his paintings resemble, "nothing but some colors sprayed into the air and staying there." These works, like End Run (1967), were very well received by critics and are considered the most important of Olitski's career.
With Greenberg's support, Olitski became a major player in the New York avant-garde and was chosen to represent the United States, along with Frankenthaler, Kelly, and Roy Lichtenstein, at the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966. For the introduction to the catalogue, Greenberg heaped praise upon Olitski in particular, who he said, "has turned out what I don't hesitate to call masterpieces in every phase of his art." Olitski's star continued to rise throughout the late 1960s as he was the subject of a major exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in 1967, and received the honor of having a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.
However, in the early 1970s Olitski changed his modus operandi yet again and began applying paint in a thick impasto, which hearkened back to the gestural abstraction of his predecessors. Though he had a major show in 1973 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that also traveled to the Whitney, the tide of critical opinion began to turn against Olitski. By the mid 1970s, Post-painterly Abstraction had been challenged by Pop, Minimalist and then Conceptual art. Olitski continued to paint as he liked, and his persistence resulted in harsh reviews from critics like Hilton Kramer, who wrote that in the 1973 retrospective, "the only [works] that remain of interest are the [ones] he was producing in 1962." Equally negative critical response to his forays into sculpture relegated Olitski to the sidelines of the American avant-garde over the protests of Clement Greenberg. The critic's continued assertion that Olitski was the best living American painter - which he maintained until 1990 - probably hastened the decline in Olitski's stature among other critics, and his younger peers.
Late Years and DeathThough Olitski might have reached the zenith of his fame in the late 1960s, he was not discouraged by the largely negative critical response to his work in the 1970s and 1980s. He did not return to the spray guns which garnered him so much acclaim, but instead continued to experiment, employing mops and even his fingers to apply paint. During the two decades following his 1973 retrospective, his work saw a large decrease in major exhibitions, and a severe downturn in sales.
Undeterred, Olitski became heavily interested in printmaking and devoted a great deal of his time to this medium and to works on paper, often in watercolor. His later paintings are generally landscapes of the areas around his homes in New Hampshire and Florida, where he worked for the last several decades of his life. This return to the depiction of the natural world was a major departure from a career that avoided any recognizable imagery in favor of pure abstraction.
He began a final series of bright, forceful abstractions in the two years before his death, which were exhibited at galleries in New York and received many positive reviews, even from Hilton Kramer. Olitski painted until his death from cancer in 2007 at age 84.
LegacyThough Olitski continued to exhibit work until his death, he never reclaimed the fame he achieved forty years earlier. His groundbreaking work in the Color Field school of Post-painterly Abstraction - especially his spray paintings from the mid1960s - is still widely admired and studied, but not to the degree of his colleagues Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. His place in art history is perhaps influenced by his spectacular rise and fall, and by Greenberg's persistent support of his status as "the greatest American painter" long after his prime.
Below are Jules Olitski's major influences, and the people and ideas that he influenced in turn.
Years Worked: late 1940s - 2007
Quotes"I think of painting as possessed by a structure.. but a structure born of the flow of color feeling. Color in color is felt at any and every place of the pictorial organization; in its immediacy - its particularity. Color must be felt throughout."
- Painting in Color, 1967.
"When the conception of internal form is governed by edge, color (even when stained into raw canvas) appears to remain on or above the surface. I think, on the contrary, of color as being seen in and throughout, not solely on, the surface."
- Painting in Color, 1967.
BiographyArt and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews
Review of Olitski's life and work along with other artists
Written by ArtistArt in Theory, 1900-2000: an Anthology of Changing Ideas
Essay written by Olitski
PaintingsJules Olitski: The New Hampshire Exhibits Autumn 2003
Jules Olitski: The Late Paintings, A Celebration
Three American painters, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella: Fogg Art Museum, 21 April-30 May 1965
Superb Irrelevance: Experiencing Jules Olitski's Late Works
November 19, 2012
By Torey Akers
Art in Review: Jules Olitski
October 13, 2000
The New York Times
By Roberta Smith
Jules Olitski, 84, American Abstract Painter
February 5, 2007
By Benjamin Genocchio
Websites about Artist
Official Estate Website
|A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and 1950s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraces the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the post-war mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism Page
|Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the 20th century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Pollock, Still and Hofmann.
ArtStory: Clement Greenberg Page
|German-born American painter, art teacher and theorist. Hofmann matured as an artist in 1904-14 in Paris, where he met many of the greatest artists of that time. After he emigrated to America in the early 1930s he enjoyed a prominent career as a teacher, powerfully influencing many Abstract Expressionists with his understanding of European modernism.
ArtStory: Hans Hofmann Page
|Active in Paris from the 1920s onward, and influenced by Surrealism, Miró developed a style of biomorphic abstraction which blended abstract figurative motifs, large fields of color, and primitivist symbols. This style would be an important inspiration for many Abstract Expressionists.
ArtStory: Joan Miró Page
|Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract painter in mid-20th-century New York. Along with Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, Frankenthaler is considered a pioneer in the practice of color-field painting.
ArtStory: Helen Frankenthaler Page
|Clyfford Still was a leading first-generation Abstract Expressionist. His mature works are large-scale paintings with gaping chasms and stains of jagged color, often in dark earth tones.
ArtStory: Clyfford Still Page
|Ossip Zadkine was a Russian painter and sculptor. After studying art in London, Zadkine moved to Paris in 1910 and became involved in the Cubism movement with the likes of Picasso and Braque.
|Hilton Kramer is an American art critic and writer, and founder of The New Criterion.
|Kenneth Noland was an American painter who helped pioneer the Color Field movement in the 1960s. His most famous works consist of circular ripples of paint poured directly onto the canvas.
ArtStory: Kenneth Noland Page
|Ellsworth Kelly is an American color-field and hard-edge painter. Kelly got his start in the late-1950s with showings at the Betty Parsons Gallery and the Whitney Museum. His work often consists of shaped canvases, simple geometric shapes, and large panels of uniform color.
ArtStory: Ellsworth Kelly Page
|Morris Louis was an American painter and an original member of the so-called Washington Color School. Along with Noland, Frankenthaler and others, Louis pioneered the color-field school of painting, using a technique of soaking heavy oil paints into unprimed canvases. Louis's paintings in part inspired his friend Clement Greenberg to dub the second-generation Abstract Expressionism artists Post-painterly abstraction.
ArtStory: Morris Louis Page
|Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled "les fauves" or "wild beasts" by critic Louis Vauxcelles, the artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
ArtStory: Fauvism Page
|Frank Stella is an American artist whose geometric paintings and shaped canvases underscore the idea of the painting as object. A major influence on Minimalism, his iconic works include nested black and white stripes and concentric, angular half-circles in bright colors.
ArtStory: Frank Stella Page
|Michael Fried is an American art critic and historian who gained acclaim for his ideas on "theatricality" in art. Fried applied this idea to the artistic style Minimalism, which he believed negatively blurred the boundaries between natural art forms and non-art objects.
ArtStory: Michael Fried Page
|A tendency within Abstract Expressionism, distinct from gestural abstraction, color field painting was developed by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still in the late 1940s, and developed further by Helen Frankenthaler and others. It is characterized by large fields of color and an absence of any figurative motifs, and often expresses a yearning for transcendence and the infinite.
ArtStory: Color Field Painting Page