Visit our Community Pages Please support our work

The Art Story.org - Your Guide to Modern Art

Movements Artists Timelines Ideas Blog
Artists Jules Olitski

Jules Olitski

Russian-American Painter

Movement: Color Field Painting

Born: March 27, 1922 - Snovsk, Ukraine

Died: February 4, 2007 - New York, New York

Synopsis

Jules Olitski was a Russian-born American painter who was instrumental in the development of the Color Field school. Like his contemporaries Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, Olitski stained the surface of his canvases in a technique that rejected the gestural brushwork of the then-popular Abstract Expressionist artists. With their emphasis on material, surface, and color's emotional strength, his signature works eliminated the illusion of depth and any evidence of the artist's touch. Although Olitski did not remain as well known as some of his fellow Color Field painters, his abstract "spray paintings" of the 1960s are still considered landmark works of this movement.

Key Ideas

Olitski was interested in conveying the evocative power of pure color. In his paintings of the 1960s and 1970s, he rejected any suggestion of imagery or narrative, taking abstraction to its outer limits.
Olitski pioneered a technique of applying paint to unprimed canvases with an industrial spray gun. He was thus able to show the paint at its airiest and most dematerialized, as though it were still floating in the air rather than fixed on the canvas. In this way, Olitski directed the viewer's attention to the essential qualities of color itself.
The misty fields of paint in Olitski's signature works are remarkable for their subtle tonal gradations and their luminosity. Even in his later work, when he used heavy brushwork and a denser application of pigment, Olitski masterfully explored chromatic relationships and the interaction between color and light.

Most Important Art

Patutsky in Paradise (1966)
In his breakthrough works of 1965 through 1966, Olitski began using high-powered spray guns to apply paint to canvas. This technique produced seamless layers of sheer color that seem to flow into one another without any evidence of the artist's hand. In these works, Olitski's goal was to capture the effect of the pure color floating in the air, as though he were defying the limits of the two-dimensional canvas (and of gravity itself). The work's title refers to "Prince Patutsky," a nickname that Olitski's stepfather had given him in his childhood. Olitski used this name for several works of his works from the mid-1960s. Here, its juxtaposition with the word "paradise" and the painting's bright palette may indicate a feeling of pure joy, untethered to earthly difficulties.
Acrylic on canvas - Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario
More Art Works


By submitting above you agree to the ArtStory privacy policy.
Like The Art Story on Facebook

Biography

Childhood

Jules Olitski was born Jevel Demikovsky in Snovsk, Russia (now Ukraine), on March 27, 1922. His Bolshevik father was executed by the White Russian army a few months before his birth. In 1923 his mother and grandmother brought him to the United States, where the family started a new life in Brooklyn, New York. His mother remarried in 1926, and he took the surname of his mother's new husband, Hyman Olitsky. He changed the spelling of his name later in life after it was misprinted in a clerical error.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Early Training

Olitski showed an early talent for drawing and began taking art classes during his teens. In 1939 he won a scholarship to Pratt Institute in New York. He studied at the National Academy of Design from 1940 to 1942 and also took classes at the Beaux Arts Institute of Design on Manhattan's East Side. After becoming a United States citizen in 1942, he was conscripted into military service for three years during World War II. Although he never served overseas, he lived in Paris from 1949 until 1951 and was able to attend the Ossip Zadkine School and the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere through the educational benefits of the G.I. Bill. His first one-man exhibition was held 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 Bachelor of Arts in 1952 and a Master of Arts in Art Education in 1954. In 1956 he took a position as the head of the Fine Art Division at C.W. Post College of Long Island University, where he taught for seven years.

During this time, Olitski began to receive recognition as an artist in New York. He exhibited at Iolas Gallery in 1958, and in 1959 he held his first one-man show in the city at the gallery French & Co., where the renowned critic Clement Greenberg was a consultant. Greenberg became Olitski's steadfast champion and guided his career to its zenith.

Mature Period

At the time he was discovered by Greenberg, Olitski was creating monochromatic canvases in an Abstract Expressionist idiom influenced by older painters like Hans Hofmann. However, he soon began experimenting with a variety of media and new techniques. By the late 1950s, the gestural abstraction of the New York School was being challenged by a group of younger artists who reacted against the heavy impasto and distinctive brushstrokes of Action Painting. They sought to remove the illusion of depth and any evidence of the painter's hand in a style dubbed "post-painterly abstraction" by Greenberg.

Olitski, along with his colleagues Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, and Morris Louis, was one of the pioneers of post-painterly abstraction. These artists shared certain techniques, such as a method of staining the canvas by pouring quick-drying acrylic pigment directly onto it. Olitski's experiments with stain painting can be seen in works like Cleopatra Flesh (1962), which features the bright colors and large, simplified shapes that mark his work of the early 1960s. During the mid-1960s, however, Olitski abruptly changed his method. In 1964, in works like Tin Lizzie Green (1964), he began using rollers to press paint into the canvas in wispy, superimposed sheets of uninterrupted color.

Olitski's most important breakthrough came in the spring of 1965, when he began using industrial spray guns to apply diaphanous layers of paint to unprimed, unstretched canvas. This process was groundbreaking. It removed all vestiges of drawing and of 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." Fried went on to say that this interpenetration and fluctuation created a new visual experience 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 illustrate Olitski's own goal for his paintings to resemble "nothing but some colors sprayed into the air and staying there." These works of the mid-1960s, such as Patutsky in Paradise (1966) were praised by critics and are still considered the most important of Olitski's career.

Jules Olitski Biography

By this time Olitski had become a major player in the New York avant-garde and was chosen to represent the United States, along with Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, and Roy Lichtenstein, at the 33rd Venice Biennale in 1966. In the introduction to the catalogue, Greenberg heaped praise upon Olitski, calling his paintings "masterpieces." Olitski's star continued to rise throughout the late 1960s. He was the subject of a major exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in 1967, and his sculpture was showcased in a one-man exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. In New York, his circle of close friends included the painters Kenneth Noland and Larry Poons and the sculptors Anthony Caro and David Smith. He also spent time in Vermont, teaching art at Bennington College from 1963 to 1967.

However, in the early 1970s Olitski changed his modus operandi yet again and began applying paint in a thick impasto that harkened back to the gestural abstraction of his predecessors. Although he was the subject of a major retrospective organized by Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in 1973, the tide of critical opinion began to turn against him. Post-painterly abstraction had been challenged by Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptual art; however, Olitski continued to paint as he liked, regardless of these newer movements. His persistence drew 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. The decline in Olitski's stature among other critics and his younger peers was most likely only hastened by Greenberg's continued assertion, which he maintained until 1990, that Olitski was the best living American painter. His dedication to a fixed set of artistic ideals had apparently turned out to be a dead end for his career.

Late Years and Death

During the two decades following his 1973 retrospective, Olitski's work was infrequently included in major exhibitions, and his sales saw a severe downturn. However, undeterred by this change in public and critical taste, he continued to experiment. His brushwork became increasingly dynamic and his paint application even heavier as he moved from a grisaille palette to brighter tones with iridescent finishes. His embrace of depth and movement during this period has caused his work of the 1980s and early 1990s (such as Lives of Angels [1990]) to be described as "baroque" by later art historians and critics.

Olitski's paintings of the later 1990s were inspired by landscapes near his summer home in New Hampshire and his winter house in the Florida Keys, This return to the depiction of the natural world was a major departure from a career that had avoided any recognizable imagery in favor of pure abstraction. He also became interested in printmaking and in watercolor painting, and he devoted a great deal of his time to these media. As he had done throughout his career, he preferred to paint throughout the night and sleep late into the day.

In the last decade of his life, Olitski began a final series of vivid, forceful abstractions titled With Love and Disregard (2002). When this series was exhibited in New York in 2002, it received many positive reviews. Olitski painted until his death from cancer in 2007 at age 84. He was survived by his third wife, Joan (known as Kristina) Olitski, as well as two daughters from his previous marriages and a stepdaughter.

Legacy

In the 1960s, Olitski took part in defining Color Field painting and post-painterly abstraction. Over the following decades, he continued to challenge artistic conventions. His ever-changing style and techniques made him difficult to categorize, and for a long while he was eclipsed by contemporaries (like Frankenthaler and Louis), who had maintained a consistent aesthetic. However, despite the unfavorable reception of his work in the 1970s through the 1990s, Olitski stood firm in his commitment to wide-ranging experimentation with the interplay of color and light, pictorial space, and the expressive potential of his chosen medium of paint. When he exhibited his final works, in the last years of his life, public and critical tastes had begun to shift again, this time in his favor.

Olitski's art continues to be exhibited in galleries worldwide, and he is represented in major museum collections including those of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the Tate. In 2011 Olitski was the subject of a large-scale retrospective exhibition organized by the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, which traveled across the United States and was accompanied by a scholarly catalogue. This recent reexamination of Olitski's career has confirmed his importance as a mid-century abstractionist and his influence on a younger generation of abstract painters.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Jules Olitski
Interactive chart with Jules Olitski's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Artists

Hans Hofmann
Joan Miró
Helen Frankenthaler
Clyfford Still
Ossip Zadkine

Friends

Clement Greenberg
Hilton Kramer
Kenneth Noland
Ellsworth Kelly
Morris Louis

Movements

Fauvism
Abstract Expressionism
Jules Olitski
Jules Olitski
Years Worked: late 1940s - 2007

Artists

Frank Stella
Al Held

Friends

Michael Fried
Rosalind Krauss

Movements

Color Field Painting
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Minimalism
Lyrical Abstraction

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

. [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org website. Available from:
[Accesed ]

Useful Resources on Jules Olitski

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews

By Michael Fried

written by artist
Art in Theory, 1900-2000: an Anthology of Changing Ideas

By Charles Harrison and Paul J. Wood

Jules Olitski: "Expect Nothing, Do Your Work, Celebrate

Artsy
April 8, 2014

Superb Irrelevance: Experiencing Jules Olitski's Late Works

By Torey Akers
ArtsEditor.com
November 19, 2012

Circle in the Square: Jules Olitski at FreedmanArt

By Barbara A. MacAdam
ARTnews
August 15, 2011

Jules Olitski, 84, American Abstract Painter

By Benjamin Genocchio
The New York Times
February 5, 2007

Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
Color Field Painting
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
Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract painter in mid-twentieth-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
Morris Louis
Morris Louis
Morris Louis
Morris Louis was an American painter and an original member of the so-called Washington Color School. Along with Kenneth Noland, Helen 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
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced 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 postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth 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 Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
ArtStory: Clement Greenberg
Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
Hans Hofmann
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
Abstract Expressionism - Action Painting
Abstract Expressionism - Action Painting
Abstract Expressionism - Action Painting
Action Painting was a term coined by art critic Harold Rosenberg to refer to the gestural mode of Abstract Expressionism, characterized by drips, flung paint, and rapid, spontaneous strokes. In this view the painting is a record of the artist's activities over time.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism - Action Painting
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
ArtStory: Post-Painterly Abstraction
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
Ellsworth Kelly
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
Michael Fried
Michael Fried
Michael Fried
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
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein was an American painter and a pioneer of the Pop art movement. His signature reproductions of comic book imagery eventually redefined how the art world viewed high vs. lowbrow art. Lichtenstein employed a unique form of painting called the Benday dot technique, in which small, closely-knit dots of paint were applied to form a much larger image.
ArtStory: Roy Lichtenstein
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland
Kenneth Noland was an American painter who helped pioneer the Color-field painting movement in the 1960s. His most famous works consist of circular ripples of paint poured directly onto the canvas.
ArtStory: Kenneth Noland
Larry Poons
Larry Poons
Larry Poons
Born in Tokyo, Japan, Larry Poons is an abstract painter. He rose to prominence during the early 1960's Op Art Movement with his paintings of colored dots. In the late 1960's his work shifted towards looser explorations of color and can be characterized as expressionist and abstract. He currently lives and works in New York City where he teaches at the Art Students League.
Larry Poons
Anthony Caro
Anthony Caro
Anthony Caro
Sir Anthony Alfred Caro is an English abstract sculptor whose work famously incorporates found industrial objects, or what has been called "junk sculpture." Caro's non-objective sculpture was heavily influenced by the work of David Smith in the 1950s. Caro showed at the 1966 Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum. His work has also been categorized as Minimalist and Conceptual.
Anthony Caro
David Smith
David Smith
David Smith
David Smith was an American artist who combined Surrealism and formal abstraction in his sculptures. His early works, small and with a craft-like aesthetic, give way later on to giant constructions of welded and burnished steel.
ArtStory: David Smith
Pop Art
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
ArtStory: Pop Art
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
ArtStory: Minimalism
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
ArtStory: Conceptual Art
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
Joan Miró
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
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still
Clyfford Still
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
Ossip Zadkine
Ossip Zadkine
Ossip Zadkine
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.
Ossip Zadkine
Hilton Kramer
Hilton Kramer
Hilton Kramer
Hilton Kramer is an American art critic and writer, and founder of The New Criterion.
Hilton Kramer
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism
Fauvism was an early twentieth-century art movement founded by Henri Matisse and André Derain. Labeled as "wild beasts", Fauve artists favored vibrant colors and winding gestural strokes across the canvas.
ArtStory: Fauvism
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
Frank Stella
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
Al Held
Al Held
Al Held
Al Held was an American painter and a leading figure in the second generation of Abstract Expressionists. Held's paintings are considered to be in the style of 'Hard-Edge' and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' Held achieved both acclaim and criticism for his experiments with black and white imagery, or what he called "spatial conundrums."
Al Held
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss
Rosalind Krauss is an American art critic and philosopher. Originally a disciple of formalist critic Clement Greenberg, Krauss later founded the radicalist journal October, and became an important proponent of postmodern art theory.
ArtStory: Rosalind Krauss
Lyrical Abstraction
Lyrical Abstraction
Lyrical Abstraction
Lyrical Abstraction was a term used to describe abstract painters coming out of the Color Field vein of Abstract Expressionism, especially in the 1960s and 70s. Lyrical Abstraction emphasizes the emotional or spiritual, and tends toward free areas of color rather than strict formalism or hard-edge geometry.
Lyrical Abstraction