Jules Olitski: A Ten-Year
Art New England, Feb/Mar 2004
Keene State College, Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery
Keene, New Hampshire
September 2 - October 12, 2003
By Craig Stockwell
The Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery opened ten years ago with an exhibit of Jules Olitski’s work and has maintained a close relationship with the NH based painter ever since. This exhibit of paintings, drawings, sculpture and monoprints is a generous and prodigious outpouring by an artist in his 80s. This work speaks of a tremendous life force, deep Eros. In conjunction with this exhibit Olitski was interviewed for NH Public Radio and in that interview he reaffirmed his passionate connection to the possibilities inherent in the act of painting and his wide-ranging knowledge of the ideas and history of painting. He also reiterates that he is a self-made artist and a fighter who made sense out of painting on his own terms, a refreshing point of view in an era where artists rush to fit in.
This is a gutsy show, a show overstuffed with thickly painted surfaces like frosted cakes at Friendly’s and brass frames and offensive (tacky) colors, and too much work, and cloying sentimentality, and some great painting and absolutely elegant moments of painterly expression. This show contains two bodies of work that would seem incompatible but here work convincingly as a whole. There are the abstractions; Olitski made his reputation as a great abstract “Color Field” painter. He became an abstract painter by painting (literally) blind-folded, and his move back into landscapes sounds like it happened in similar fashion…as a beginner. He, of course, had a youthful background as a skilled draftsman. But, late in his life he returned to painting sunsets and islands and boats with the pleasure of an amateur and the intelligence of a fully formed painter. The abstracts and the landscapes merge in this densely packed show into a maelstrom of primordial color and movement. The paintings are not so much pictures as remnants of a process of generous investigation into everything that painting materials can do. And this is what keeps them very contemporary.
Three paintings stand out: “Hot Swoosh,” is a large painting thickly painted. With interference color and gobs of swept paint it speaks of deep physical-liquid pleasure. “Bathing in a Yellow Sea” is a very moving portrait of a figure swirled in yellow, the sensation a painter might long for as a colorist. “Mythic Sunrise Journey,” evokes Ryder, as many of the waterscapes do, a soft, buttery sun swirled in celestial blue refers to a Baroque spiritual yearning.