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Jules Olitski - Biography and Legacy

Russian-American Painter

Born: March 27, 1922 - Snovsk, Ukraine
Died: February 4, 2007 - New York, New York
Movements and Styles:
Color Field Painting

Biography of Jules Olitski


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.

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.

The Legacy of Jules Olitski

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.

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Jules Olitski Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 17 May 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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