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Jules Olitski: "Embracing Circles" at Hackett Mill
by dewitt cheng
Sep 2010



Untitled-Seven
1960
Jules Olitski
Magna acrylic on canvas
77" x 79"
Photo: ©Jules Olitski Estate
Courtesy: Hackett Mill, San Francisco


In the late 1960s, Jules Olitski aspired to create "colors sprayed into the air and staying there." Airbrushed atmospheres of atomized color and light framed by horizon-like edges of brushed paint became the elements of his signature style. Since the canvases also accorded perfectly with Clement Greenberg's formalist theories, they earned the artist that influential critic's encomium as "the greatest painter alive." Hyperbole or not, Olitski's career blossomed; in 1966 he was chosen to represent America at the Venice Biennale; in 1969 he was given the first Metropolitan Museum of Art solo show by a living artist. In the 1970s, however, superseded by newer styles, formalism faded, and so did the reputation of its avatar. Now, three years after Olitski's death, some fifteen of Olitski's little-known early pre-1965 works are back on view after a fifty-year hiatus in storage. Featuring biomorphic forms, jazzy palettes and raffish titles, these abstractions are a revelation--insouciant, fresh and undated.

Olitski's striking color and his exploration of material and process were evident all along, but his seemingly casual humor surprises and delights here. Today we think of formalists as puritanical esthetes, but Olitski's ambiguous micro-macro organic forms (fruits, eggs, buds, celestial bodies) have clear links to artist-poets like Kandinsky, Arp, and Miro. Untitled-Two, Untitled-Seven and Untitled-Eight (all 1960) repeat a kissing-cell motif, but with wavering, amoebic forms trembling with protoplasmic bliss. Fanny D (1960) encloses its four colored eggs within a pink membrane; Hallo (1961), depicts the tentative encounter of pink and blue/green pebble tribes. The titles--Mushroom Joy (1959), Medusa Pleasure (1962) and New Love (1964)--are similarly playful, or, according to essayist David Moos, "indulgent," invoking "sensuality, pleasure, [and] jouissance." Critic Michael Fried correctly praised Olitski's "color-situations of great originality, subtlety and force," but there's more here than meets the detached connoisseurial eye.

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