Catalogue essays for commercial galleries are a special form of literature. Although their writers are frequently referred to as "critics," these writers do not criticize in the sense that reviewers for independent publications might. As a rule, too, their essays are expected to focus on the works that the gallery will be displaying in this particular show, and to correlate their remarks with the presentation itself.
That said, there is still considerable illumination and edification to be gained from a careful study of the three essays and the "Chronology" contained in "Jules Olitski: Color to the Core, Paintings 1960-1964," the 124-page, lavishly-illustrated outsize catalogue accompanying the spectacular exhibition at Yares Art in New York of 33 medium-sized to large paintings and nine small oil pastels executed between 1959 and 1965. (This show was scheduled to close on January 30 when I posted my review of it on January 4, but I am happy to report its run has been extended to March 12.).
And what of the catalogue, you may ask? I found it daunting at first -- overwhelmed by its variegated richness, together with the fact that all three essays cover essentially the same subject matter. This is true both in terms of the art they discuss, and also in terms of the personalities introduced—most notably, of course, the artist himself but also his good friend, Clement Greenberg. Sometimes these essays even quote the same sources.
Therefore in order to organize my response, I started by taking notes on the authors, their other writings, and the length of their contributions. Those notes run as follows.
The first essay is by David Ebony, and is entitled, "Olitski at the Core: An Introduction." It is two pages long, with 4 footnotes. Ebony is a contributing editor for Art in America and an adjunct at the New York Academy of Art (that temple to academic realism). He is best known to me for exhibition catalogues on modernist abstractionists, for Yares, Spanierman Modern, Jacobson Howard and Ameringer McEnery Yohe. But he has also done books on the garden installations of Dale Chihuly and the response of Fernando Botero, the Colombian representational painter,, to the atrocities of Abu Ghraib.
The second essay is by Alexander Nemerov, and is entitled, "The Sticky Spring Leaves, The Blue Sky." It's three pages long and has 7 notes. Nemerov is chairman of the art and art history department of Stanford University, and the author of books on Raphaelle Peale, America's first professional still life painter, and Lewis Hine, the early 20th century activist photographer, as well as several books on 1940s popular culture.
Nemerov was born in Bennington VT in 1963, when his father, the distinguished poet Howard Nemerov, was teaching at Bennington College, and Olitski was just arriving to teach there, too. However, the Nemerov family soon moved elsewhere and Alexander didn't develop an interest in color-field painting himself until the early 2000s, when he was in his late 30s. Since then he has contributed an essay to the catalogue for the Morris Louis retrospective that originated in Atlanta in 2006, and spoken on Jackson Pollock at a College Art Association conference. His next book, due out in March, is "Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York."
The third essay is by Patricia L. Lewy and is entitled "'A Curious Painting Is Taking Shape:' Jules Olitski's Ludic Surfaces, 1959-1964," It is 7 pages long and has 50 footnotes. Lewy started out as a musicologist and got her first doctorate for a dissertation on Mozart sopranos. More recently, she has taken a second doctorate in art history, worked for Christie's as a senior contributing writer, and is preparing the catalogue for a show of the veteran American abstractionist Sheila Isham.
Most importantly, she is an authority on Friedel Dzubas – and the author of a handsome and very thoroughly-researched monograph on him that I reviewed for artcritical.com in 2020. She is director of the Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives. As the Dzubas Estate – like the Olitski Estate – is represented by Yares Art, it's only natural that Lewy should develop an interest in Olitski, too.
The "Chronology" is also written in the form of an essay (as opposed to the more common practice of simply listing and annotating key dates within the artist's life, his education, shows, bibliography etc.). It is 11 pages long, with 32 footnotes, and is by Alex Grimley, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas in Austin, with a dissertation in progress on Olitski's paintings of the 1970s.
The three earlier essays deal with the artist's life and artistic development up through the period represented by the paintings in this show. Grimley's "Chronology" takes the artist's life and career from cradle to grave. For that reason it is a little clearer about just exactly how Olitski's work evolved from the "core" paintings of the early 1960s to the "spray" paintings of the later '60s – but still not clear enough to satisfy me – and my very dim recollections of that period myself.
MY FIRST EXPOSURE TO OLITSKI
Not that I was an intimate of the color-field school in those days. On the contrary, I had never even heard of it, the first time I saw a painting by Olitski, in March 1968. The painting was in the collection of William Rubin, who had succeeded Alfred Barr as chief curator at MoMA at the beginning of the year, and was preparing a big show of dada and surrealism.
Never having heard of dada, and little beyond the name of surrealism, I decided this show would be great for a story in Time, where I was then working. So I got the P.R at MoMA to set up a lunch for Rubin and myself.
As an outgrowth of that meeting, he invited me to his loft on Lower Broadway for lunch, and to see his private collection. This caused me to develop the beginnings of a crush on him, and (as is perhaps not a coincidence) I was thoroughly taken by the art he showed me at that lunch.
Along with masterpieces by Pollock and David Smith, Rubin's collection included work by Noland, Poons, Frankenthaler – and Olitski. Within the next thirteen months, I'd do stories for Time on all four of these color-field painters — with color photography of their work as illustration (although color photography in newsmagazines was still unusual in those days)..
Olitski came first because in addition to enjoying Rubin's favor, he had a tie to the North Country School, in Lake Placid, NY. I had attended North Country as a child, and retained a lasting love of it. In April 1968 I revisited the school, and discovered that Olitski's daughter Lauren was a student there.
Anybody with a child at North Country had to be special – so the minute I saw a suitable "newspeg" (or reason) for a story on Olitski in a newsmagazine, I scheduled one on him.
I then visited him in his studio in Chelsea, to meet him and to prepare a "shooting script," telling our photographer which paintings I wanted color pictures taken of.
By 1968, Olitski had gone over entirely to "spray" paintings, which he made by spraying paint on canvas with an air compressor. He showed me some of these spray paintings and I prepared a shooting script of them.
However, to the best of my recollection, when the photographer got there, he had the sense to realize that the spray paintings wouldn't reproduce well on our modest 8½ x 11 inch pages (though the quality of our reproductions was relatively good – all the plates were corrected by hand).
Therefore, he also photographed "Tin Lizzie Green,"' which Olitski had painted back in 1964. "Tin Lizzie Green" is a brighter, solider picture, still painted with rollers and/or sponges instead of the compressor. A vertical measuring more than 10 feet high and nearly 7 feet wide, it is mostly green with narrow strips of red across its top and bottom plus further accents along the sides.
A SIXTIES SALES PITCH
Nor was that all which we did in order to make Olitski more acceptable (if not comprehensible) to our mostly-much-less-sophisticated 20 million readers. I wasn't yet aware of the gap that yawned between color-field painting and the esthetic capabilities of most Americans, but my senior editor, Cranston Jones, was.
(I have since concluded that Cran Jones knew a great deal more about color-field painting, too, but he had the good sense to let me discover it for myself.)
When I'd visited Olitski, I'd noticed several of his drawings of female nudes, posted on his walls. I'd asked him about them, and he'd said that he and a group of friends, including "Clem" Greenberg, like to gather for sketching sessions. I'd passed along this info to Cran Jones (without having any idea of who Greenberg was)..
Working with 8" x 10" transparencies on a light box, Cran and I composed a color page that included (if I recall correctly) one spray painting and "Tin Lizzie Green." Then Cran said something like this to me.
"All of these spray paintings are kind of airy-fairy, aren't they? We need to do something to show that Olitski's a real mensch. So why don't you write that sketch group into the lede of your story? Then we can run a black-and-white photograph, too, showing him sitting in front of one of his nudes."
(Sorry, folks, about "airy-fairy." I know it sounds horrible in 2021, but 53 years ago, it didn't strike me as offensive, just descriptive. Put it down to my own limitations, if you like, but it readily explained for me the need for the sketch of the female nude.)
A 21ST CENTURY KINSHIP WITH THIS OUTLOOK: EBONY ON THE NUDE
Nor was Jones the only one to feel the need for highlighting Olitski's interest in the female nude. So too does David Ebony, in his catalogue entry for the current show. Its illustrations tell the story almost better than the text does.
To be sure, it starts out in a way that Olitski I am sure would have approved, with reproductions of a marvelously abstract Miró plus a Klee that is as abstract as Klee ever got.
I feel sure that Olitski liked to consider these two artists among his primary esthetic forefathers (in line with the famous statement by David Smith, to the effect that every artist gets to choose his own ancestors).
However, turn the page in Ebony's essay and we are confronted with a two-page layout that includes not one but five images of female nudes.
On the left-hand page, along with the text, are three images of work by artists whom Ebony thinks Olitski might have considered ancestors
The first is: a semi-abstract sculpture by Ossip Zadkine, with whom Olitski officially studied when he went to Paris in 1949 on the G. I. Bill of Rights (though he loathed Zadkine' s anti-American invective and painted at home for most of the course).
The second is a Rembrandt nude. Certainly there is no argument that Olitski revered the Dutch Old Master, but it was how Rembrandt painted, his way of laying on the pigment, that Olitski admired most -- not the fact that he occasionally painted nudes.
Third is a nude by Matisse -- one of his most abstract and ornamental. Goodness knows, Matisse painted plenty of nudes, but.it was his color and his freedom from conventional forms and spatial norms that made him such an important influence of Olitski, not the nudes per se.
To be fair, Ebony also makes these points, but over and over again, he returns to the parallels he draws between the drawings of nudes that Olitski was making in the 1960s and the "core" paintings, arguing that they mirror or reflect the curvilinear shapes and "sensuous" forms of the nudes.
At the very end of the page, he reports on the one time he met Olitski – in the late 1970s, when he was returning an Olitski drawing of a nude that had been lent to a show at the gallery where he was working.
He describes his brief conversation with the artist. It made him aware that "this sensuous quality inherent in the drawing can be found in all of his abstract paintings as well. It was something of a revelation to me," Ebony concludes. "I have felt the special sensuousness in Olitski's color, forms, and texture in all of his works ever since."
And, in hopes no doubt of evoking a similar response from his readers, on the opposite page he publishes two LARGE reproductions of Olitski drawings of female nudes. Together, they occupy the entire page.
A 21ST-CENTURY MEDIA RESPONSE: BY ROBERTA SMITH
In line with this essay, and most likely because of Olitski's equation between his paintings and the sensuousness of the female nude, quite a number of paintings in this show bear titles that either incorporate a woman's name or are otherwise suggestive..
According to the checklist, they are "Hot Silence" (1962), "Fanny D." (1960), "Fair Charlotte" (1961), "Lucy's Fancy" (1960), "Wet Heat Company" (1963), "Pursuit of Daphne" (1961), "Yaksi Darling" (1961), "Yaksi Juice" (1963), "Fatal Plunge Lady" (1963), "East Seventieth Street Rapture"(1962), "Passion Machine" (1961), "Judith Juice" (1965), and "Shakeup Sally" (1961).
Such titles may have been an effective sales point back in the bad old days when women were not accorded quite the respect they enjoy today.
I think here of Clement Greenberg telling me how I should have researched a story on the latest trends in the art world that Milton Esterow of ARTnews had assigned me, back in the early 70s. Esterow thought I should be interviewing all the prestige critics who wrote for The New York Times, Newsweek and so forth, but Greenberg (who said he had suggested the story to Esterow) thought I should have been interviewing "all those little girls in the studios who are being brutalized by the artists…"
In addition to these suggestive titles, both "Wet Heat Company" and "Fatal Plunge Lady" have a big reddish-pink image in them that looks very much like a huge descending female breast. It was all more than Roberta Smith, senior art critic for The New York Times, could stand.
She is a liberated lady if there ever was one, always gung ho to review the latest female artists.
I have even heard it said that back in her salad days, she was a member of the "Guerilla Girls," an outfit that (still) agitates to get more women artists exposure (though more recently Smith has publicly dissented from their tactics, arguing that quality is as important as quantity – what a heretical view!)
Anyway, she vehemently disliked all the suggestive titles and imagery in the Olitski show. To be sure, she loved the show itself, and ran an enormous and very favorable review of it on January 29.
However, in her lede, right after calling the show "astounding," she added "even if the avuncular sexual innuendos and women's names in most of their titles are by now wearying, the stale artifacts of a malign, oblivious era."
To her credit, she tried very hard to find alternate "readings" of the implied imagery. Even "Fatal Plunge Lady" – which the Times reproduced at half-page size – was interpreted as a small green "lunar module" about to land on a "beautiful burnt orange astral body distantly orbited by a tiny red satellite."
And most of the rest of her discussion is positive and encouraging (given the fact that no mainstream critic can afford to say anything really nice about Greenberg).
She concluded that "Olitski has been ripe for reconsideration for some years," but still couldn't let the artist's supposed attitude toward women alone. "I can hear the defense now: 'But he loved women,' she wrote. "Clearly, he did, but in such a limited, limiting way, even though his paintings have sometimes been called feminine."
Where is this coming from, I ask? Did she ever even meet the man herself? What if anything did she know about his private life? And even if she did, what if anything does this have to do with the price of tea in China?
In my opinion, all great art is an escape from one's own personal flaws and proclivities, as much as it is an expression of one's own strengths and virtues, and this is particularly the case with abstraction.
If you ask me, Olitski's titles have more to do with humanizing the works in question than with sexualizing them.
Anybody who has tried to mediate between abstract paintings and the general public knows how loftily remote from ordinary human experience such paintings can seem—that is a large part of their appeal. But they still need something to bring them down to earth, something to anchor them to reality. A title does that, and a woman's name is as a good a way to title a work as any other.
It wouldn't surprise me a whole lot to learn that a) these women's names belonged to literary characters and/or other women the artist didn't personally know and/or b) that some or all of the women in question were known to Olitski and actually felt complimented to have paintings named after them. I know I would have been sort of flattered if one of Olitski's paintings had been named, "Piri H."
To me, it's no big deal, but we have gotten so hung up on un-naming -- and re-naming --- things lately, what with all this frenzy about doing away with academically-incorrect names for sports teams and school buildings. Some of the resultiing name changes can be justified, of course, but some strike me as overkill—iconoclasm run riot – or to put it another way, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
ANOTHER 21st CENTURY TAKE: NEMEROV & CLASSIC LIT
By my best guess, Alex Nemerov is maybe a decade younger than David Ebony, and he doesn't go near the woman question (except perhaps for the phrase, "sensuously overwhelming" that somehow creeps into his first paragraph)..
I feel certain that somebody on the Yares staff acted as an editor for this catalogue. That person (whoever she or he may be) must be responsible for all its glorious reproductions of the paintings in the show, tastefully interlarded with characteristic quotations from Olitski himself.
However, part of this editor's job must have been to try and avoid contradictions and/or overlap between essays, for Nemerov's two illustrations of paintings by earlier masters takes art history back on beyond Ebony's analogies of Olitski with Miró, Klee and Rembrandt.
Indeed, Nemerov carries art history back to an analogy between Olitski and Rubens, who served as an inspiration to Rembrandt, and a further analogy between Olitski and Michelangelo, who served as an inspiration to Rubens.
The Rubens reproduced is a portrayal of Silenus, an elderly drunk in Greek mythology who nonetheless spouted divine poetry when in his cups. Nemerov suggests that Olitski's method of applying paint, with its "outsized, ribald, Silenus-like grandiosity" recalls the work of Rubens. True enough.
The Michelangelo reproduction is "The Creation of the Sun and Moon," from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with God creating the sun by flinging forward his hand to create a shining golden disc.
In much the same manner, Nemerov suggests, Olitski spun off paint to create his images--except, he adds, that Olitski, "painting in an era after chapels, when art had become a substitute religion, treats his godhead more crazily, throwing his spheres less like a deity casting orbs than like a bowler aiming for strikes."
This is not the only analogy with pop culture that this writer suggests. Earlier, he has associated Olitski's paintings with the circus and the carnival; there are also references to "Day-Glo colors" and "slapstick."
To offset this, we have a quote from Greenberg, right at the beginning of his essay, referring to "massive calm." I would agree that "massive calm" is a good way to describe Olitski's paintings, even though the actual phrase by Greenberg comes from an essay he wrote on Léger.
And it is also true, I'd agree, that the paintings in this show are high-spirited, if not intentionally or even overtly comic.
For the most part, too, Nemerov takes the high road instead of the low road in his use of cultural/ literary allusions. Early on, he is reminded of one classic American author.
Speaking of the "terror of it – the overwhelming brightness, the saturation of the colors, the imposing physical dimensions of Jovian laughter," he concludes that "the paintings strike like the thunder of the bowling pins knocked down by the mountain sprites in Washington Irving's 'Rip Van Winkle.'
I could be wrong about this, but my fantasy is that Olitski would have liked this high-flown reference. And – since he had been born in Russia and was always proud of the fact – he would have been even more charmed by the long literary passage from one of the great Russian novelists with which Nemerov closes his essay..
This passage comes from "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoevsky, and Nemerov even uses the conclusion of this quotation for the title of his essay. He builds up to this conclusion by offering a long speech made by Ivan to his younger brother, Alyosha.
The theme is how much Ivan has loved life, and how much he continues to love it although he has learned how many things are wrong with it.
"In the very graveyard that he knows is only a graveyard," Nemerov writes, "Ivan still loves the 'sticky spring leaves, the blue sky…such things you love not with your mind, but with your insides, your guts, you love your first young strength…' Olitski's art invites us to experience this centripetal force."
I related to this passage because I too love to look at the leaves just coming out on the trees in spring. This is not because they are "sticky" but because they are a lovely pale shade of chartreuse, as opposed to the darker viridian they will become in summer – and because they make such a moving contrast with the blue spring sky above them.
Such is my vanity that I think this is what Dostoevsky was really talking about—and that his translators from the Russian merely chose the wrong English word...
Accompanying Nemerov's essay, besides the Rubens and the Michelangelo, are reproductions of the first two Olitski "core" paintings on the checklist. The first is "Hot Silence" (1962), a smaller work which hangs over the receptionist's desk. The second is "Fanny D." (1960), an imposing (7-foot-square) canvas that also appears on the cover of the catalogue.
Nemerov discusses "Hot Silence" as an example of a better world than the one we live in, in the sense that its three ovals hang in mid-air, unweighted with the trials and troubles of the era. He mentions "Fanny D." only in passing, but Roberta Smith wrote of it as resembling "brightly colored eggs contained in a pink basket, nest or teething ring—that careers across a lavender field."
I am reminded by this painting of a passage in "Pygmalion" by Bernard Shaw. Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering (two confirmed bachelors) are having fun at the expense of their new discovery, Eliza Doolittle, by reciting an old nursery rhyme.
"HIGGINS [declaiming gravely]. Eliza, Elizabeth, Betsy and Bess, They went to the woods to get a birds nes'; PICKERING. They found a nest with four eggs in it; HIGGINS. They took one apiece, and left three in it."
Of course, I have no proof that Olitski ever read Shaw (beyond knowing that he was a literate gent) and I certainly don't think he intended to paint a nest with eggs in it – I think the painting was titled only after it had been painted.
However, I can't help adding that another Shaw play, written only a few years before "Pygmalion," is entitled "Fanny's First Play" and that it concerns a woman playwright named Fanny O'Dowda.
I would suggest that "Fanny O'Dowda" may be the source for the painting's title of "Fanny D.," and that Olitski used "Fanny D." instead of "Fanny O." in order to avoid people associating it with "The Story of O," a pornographic French novel which had been published in1954 and was still well-known in the '60s.
ON TO A WELL-DOCUMENTED TAKE ON OLITSKI: BY PATRICIA LEWY
Much as I think Olitski might have appreciated the classical literary and visual references in Nemerov's essay, I think he might have been as dissatisfied as I was at the way Nemerov puts words in the mouth of Greenberg.
I am not talking about his use of "massive calm" already referred to but rather where he argues that "Greenberg himself refused the language of feelings. 'Lay off that flowery stuff,' he would have told Olitski had he made his 'pound and sound' speech.'
The footnotes to this passage credit an article by Olitski entitled "Clement Greenberg in My Studio" that was published in American Art in 1994. However, Nemerov doesn't quote as much of the passage as Patricia Lewy does, in her detailed and profusely documented study of Olitski's artistic development from his childhood up to about 1964.
In her expanded quotation, Olitski is recounting a conversation that he had with Greenberg in the 1970s after both had attended a lecture by Bernard Malamud. Olitski said he was asking Greenberg whether he had correctly understood something that Greenberg had said to Malamud, to the effect that he felt he was "special" as a critic because he tried to "get at the mechanism." Greenberg had responded (according to Olitski) that Olitski knew what Greenberg meant. The next passage reads as follows:
"I did know. At least I think I did. The mechanism is what makes the work work. It's what makes the heart pound and sound throughout the work. Had I said anything remotely like this, however, he probably would have shut me up with a 'lay off that flowery stuff.' Who knows, though. He might have said, as he only occasionally did, 'That's good. I'm going to use that, the next time I talk. I'll credit you.'"
You see? Even Olitski, who knew Greenberg far, far better than Nemerov ever did, offers not one but two possible Greenberg rejoinders. What's more, with Olitski's added "Who knows, though," he offers the further possibility that Greenberg might have said something entirely different.
My own experience of Greenberg is that the man was full of surprises. I never knew what he was going to say in response to anything I said. Even when I thought I knew his opinion on a subject, he would – at the very least -- qualify himself in new and unexpected ways.
He almost seemed to delight in contradicting my assumptions, spoken or unspoken. And that was part of his charm – he never bored me, even when he got to be very old and might even wind up coming close to repeating himself.
You can see the difficulty involved for an author in putting words in Greenberg's mouth. The odds are excellent that Greenberg wouldn't have said what the author thinks he would have said on any given subject. This of course isn't a problem when the author is writing fiction, but catalogue essays are in my experience supposed to be fact.
Lewy's essay – not only in this passage, but throughout – offers us a generous helping of fact. She takes us on a detailed tour from the artist's birth in 1922 in Russia on through his childhood in Brooklyn and from there to his artistic development until just before he started painting the "core" paintings in 1959.
This includes Olitski's academic training at the National Academy of Design and elsewhere before World War II, while he was still an adolescent. She reproduces a touching and very Rembrandt-like self-portrait from 1942, presumably painted not long before he was drafted.
Then she documents the artist's admiration for Dubuffet in New York in the later 1940s, after he had mustered out of the service but before he went to Paris on the GI Bill of Rights. Even during this period, he was already reading Greenberg's writings, not least the critic's admiration for Dubuffet (although Greenberg never considered Dubuffet superior to Pollock, maintaining that Pollock had "more to say" 'in the end).
Lewy then goes on to describe the Expressionistic paintings Olitski made in Paris under the influence of Dubuffet and to reproduce an example of them (dated ca.1950). She discusses (though does not reproduce) the experimental paintings the young American made while blindfolded, in an attempt to get away from his academic training.
From there, she tells how Olitski returned to New York and reproduces an example (dated ca. 1952) of the abstract paintings he made that were inspired by the used drawing boards he saw at the Art Students League. Finally, she explores the development of the "spackle" paintings which preceded the "core" paintings most directly, and reproduces three examples of them (one dated 1957, two dated 1959).
Two of these spackle paintings are accompanied by a Matisse "Back" and an ancient Cycladic figure, which the author suggests as inspiration for them. For further "source" materials for the "core" paintings she reproduces a 1926 Kandinsky abstract with many hard little circles in it, and another Matisse, the famous "Red Studio" of 1911.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the "pre-core" paintings reproduced with Lewy's essay, but I am afraid that none of them turned me on (except possibly the early self-portrait). As experiments, the Paris painting and the drawing board painting may be of scholarly interest but as paintings they don't amount to much.
I also think I've seen Olitski "spackle" paintings in the flesh that I've liked a lot better than the ones reproduced with this essay. I suspect that Greenberg did, too, since his initial admiration for Olitski was based on a show of them at Alexandre Iolas in 1958 – though of course one can never be sure, given the vagaries of reproduction.
I am also afraid that I am unable to appreciate the significance of Lewy's argument that a page of sketches by Olitski dated March 22, 1962, and sent to Greenberg, heralds "the emergence of the oval as a motif in Olitski's work." As I see it, there are already many ovals in Olitski's paintings of the whole period between 1959 and 1961.
More importantly, whatever differences may exist between post-1962 ovals and pre-1962 ovals is of minor importance when compared with the differences between the "spackle" paintings and the "core" paintings, a change-over which had taken place three years earlier (as indicated in the current exhibition by the prophetically-titled "Necessary Light" of 1959).
On the other hand, I very much like what Lewy makes of her discovery of the oval in Olitski's work, in terms of the value judgment she ascribes to it – and, by extension, to all of Olitski's previous work.
In her conclusion, she describes all of Olitski's work, from his "first break with convention" up at least 1962 as "completely playful and completely serious, both at the same time." I can go along with that (though to my way of thinking, this artist's "core" paintings are about as playful as a baby elephant).
THE BIG PICTURE: GRIMLEY'S "CHRONOLGY"
The writer who gets closest to fitting the paintings in this show into the larger context of Olitski's overall accomplishment is Alex Grimley in his "Chronology." That is, of course, largely because he deals with the artist's entire life, from his birth up to the creation of the "core" paintings but also afterwards, down through the decades until his death.
Another reason is that in a very straightforward, reportorial manner Grimleiy discusses what else distinguishes each period in the artist's life – his shows, his dealers, his places of residence, his marriages and his jobs, most notably. But also what was most distinctive about his work.
For example, in dealing with the period between 1960 and 1964 – the period covered by most of the paintings in this show – Grimley is very telling in his discussion of the artist's color choices and how they related to the historical era in which the work was made..
"His palette comprises contrasting tertiary colors," he writes, "salmon next to chartreuse, lavender against lemon yellow, teal bands orbiting mauve on a turquoise background – hues pungent, tart and saccharine by turns." Such colors, he writes, were not only comparable to those used by the Pop artists in the 60s, but also a determined challenge to the limits of "good" or "acceptable" taste.
Grimley discusses the compositional changes that take place in Olitski's paintings by 1963 – two kinds of expanding forms or spaces that both demonstrate "Olitski's overriding concern …with the bounding edges of the canvas." He goes on to discuss these works as "curtain" paintings.
In this way, he displays his knowledge not only of the paintings themselves, but also of how Kenworth Moffett dealt with them in his majestic 1981 monograph on Olitski --- and that I discovered (in my own bookcase) during my search for "Tin Lizzie Green."
This particular painting—which I remembered dimly from my 1968 story in Time – is not in the current show. True, there are two paintings that like it were done in the mid-60s with rollers and/or sponges, rather than spray, and that carry the paint clear to the edges of the canvas. Their names are "Judith Juice" (1965) and "Tea Party" (1964).
However, they are kind of hidden away in the latter part of the show – across the elevator bank from Yares' original gallery – and they are not as powerful as "Tin Lizzie Green" (to judge from the reproduction of that painting in Moffett's book—it is currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
None of these three paintings would have fit Moffett's definition of "core" paintings.
His discussion of this entire period is very condensed, as Olitski had done so much more work between the mid '60s and the early '80s, when the monograph was published. Moffett was focused to a far greater degree on the "spray" paintings with which the artist had principally concerned himself from the later '60s onward.
However, what he did say about the "core" paintings differs in one big way from the way that Ebony, Nemerov and Lewy discuss them.
True, he agrees that the core paintings originated sometime around 1959. But then he argues that they began to evolve or mutate into something else around 1963.
By this he meant paintings like "Fatal Plunge Lady" of 1963, in which the oval from the original "core" paintings had become so large that it ended only with the upper edge and the left-hand edge of the canvas – creating a shape that I've likened above to a descending woman's breast.
Moffett was more discreet. Although he conceded (briefly) near the beginning of his narrative that the "core" paintings were inspired by photographs of female nude bodies, he called this next phase of Olitski's development the "falling curtain" paintings.
Then, within a year or so, the descending shapes became so large that they covered the entire center of the canvas, leaving space for only small contrasting color elements along the edges. ..Moffett called these the "field" paintings. "Tin Lizzie Green" is an outstanding example of a "field" painting.
Only after the artist had explored the potential of this image did he evolve around 1965 on to using the air compressor to cover entire "fields" with fine spray.
The checklist of the current show at Yares has only two "spray" paintings in it, "Wand" and "Color Flow"' (both 1965). That's not surprising, for Olitski's fame burgeoned only in the later '60s and early '70s -- AFTER he replaced Kenneth Noland in Greenberg's estimation (and pronouncements) around 1970 as "our best painter."
My guess would be that the Olitski Estate, as a result, is far better supplied with the artist's work from the earlier '60s than it is with the "spray" paintings from the later '60s and early '70s. Thus it was only natural that Yares should want to stage a show focused on the "core" paintings, to title the entire show in their honor, and to hang it with the true "core" paintings interspersed with the "falling curtain" pix.
It is also only natural that its three catalogue essayists should want to follow the trajectory of the show, even if that trajectory leaves the true chronology of the Olitski's development somewhat up in the air. The show's intermingling of "core" witih "curtain" paintings, and its limited selection of "field" paintings, tends to substitute an impression of revolutionary change (directly from "core" to "spray") for what was in truth an evolutionary one..
Then again, this is only a gallery show (even if an exceptionally gracious gallery, and goodness knows I'm very grateful to it for staging such a handsome exhibition). If we want a complete presentation of Olitski's evolution as a modern master from the earliest "core" paintings on through the many other stages of his career, we are going to have to wait until some big museum has the guts to stage one.
The catalogue for that show should be quite stunning – and I do hope that by the time that show is staged, Alex Grimley will have obtained his doctorate and be available to organize it. As I may have suggested earlier, his "Chronology" is the only writing in the catalogue to refer by name to the "curtain" paintings, and I particularly liked two of his illustrations.
One of them shows both sides of a little typewritten postcard dated (Continental style) "10 April 1958" and sent by Greenberg to Olitski. The critic was inviting the painter to call him for a drink when the two had not yet met.
The other is a photograph of a young Noland and a young Olitski at Noland's home in South Shaftesbury VT in 1964. This was taken by Cora Kelley Ward, the grand photographer who chronicled so many denizens of what I continue to think of as "Greenberg's Village." And (as she so often did) she perfectly captured the spirit of that little community -- in this case, the idealism and hope of that gifted pair.