TMA exhibits work of abstract artist Jules OlitskiWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | email@example.com
Jules Olitski used leaf blowers. He used brooms and squeegees large enough to clean gymnasium courts. He used floor waxing tools and fuzzy gloves.
But he was not a janitor.
Olitski was an internationally renowned artist who won art prizes in his teens, studied at prestigious institutes and academies just before his 20s, was one of four artists representing the United States at the Venice Biennale in his 40s and still spent eight-hour nights caking acrylic on canvas into his 80s, before cancer took his life in 2007.
Olitski’s work has been displayed in hundreds of exhibitions across the globe; and between now and Aug. 26, you can see his paintings at the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA). The exhibit, “Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski,” is in a similar vein as last year’s special exhibit showing Frank Stella’s work: both Stella and Olitski were post-war abstract painters. But while Stella’s work displays more geometric hard edges, Olitski implemented more of an expressionistic, gestural abstraction, said Kate Nesin, a museum fellow.
“Olitski is a painter who is underknown,” Nesin said. “He is known in art circles for his early paintings in the 1960s but very few people have had the chance to see his later work and understand just how much experimenting he does with materials.”
Olitski’s curiosity for experimenting is evident in the massive canvases hanging in the Canaday Gallery. One painting resembles the surface of a barren planet, with scattered protrusions like jagged stones popping from the canvas’s surface.
Olitski’s widow Kristina, who visited the art museum to view the exhibit before opening day, leaned toward the painting and stroked its surface.
“Styrofoam,” she said.
A painting in the next room bears bright yellow circles, which seem to continuously swirl atop the thick, cracked layers of acrylic paint.
Kristina pointed at the circles. Her spouse, she said, would dump paint on the canvas and use a leaf blower to push and spread the paint around.
There is something alive about the colors and shapes that hang from the walls, as if the chunky swaths of paint might have traveled forever in motion before slamming into canvas.
Some of his earlier work, which is what you’ll see first in the exhibit, hangs lightly, bold hues suspended like morning mists or evening hazes.
“The mystery is part of it — what is intriguing to it,” Nesin said. “You wonder how did he do that? What was he using here? You can sense the activity and the dynamism even if you can’t tell he was using a broom or a mop in any given piece.”
Living on peanuts and coffee
Olitski was born in Russia in 1922 and came to the United States as a baby after the Russian Government executed his father, a commissar. As a kid living in Brooklyn, Olitski was inspired by comic books and would sketch his own renditions of newspaper pictures, Kristina said.
After being drafted into World War II, Olitski traveled to Paris on the GI Bill, where he started painting blindfolded to allow his work to develop on its own. The exercise led Olitski to create flat, brightly colored abstract paintings and he recognized these pieces as his first true works of art, according to a 1985 musing by the artist.
By the time he returned to Brooklyn with his daughter, he had divorced and had no money. He had an Army disability pension but most of it went to his parents to care for his daughter.
“I lived on peanuts and coffee,” he wrote in an essay from 1989, one of several collected in the book “Revelation.” “I stole. I stole art supplies. I filled the deep pockets of my Army overcoat with tubes of oil paint. I stole canvas. I stole books. I fancied myself a sort of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor: me.”
After a failed stint as a “barker” outside a movie theater on Times Square, he set forth to become a professional artist. He hit up the galleries but was told, “You’re good, but we don’t need you.”
One dealer wouldn’t risk showing his work and asked if Olitski knew anyone — if he hung out with the hip artists. No. She directed him to try that.
He decided his art was not the problem — he was the problem. As he relates in “Revelation,” he cooked up a fictitious artist named Demikov with a sordid history that involved fleeing the Soviet Union to escape execution by Stalin. Olitski scheduled an exhibition with borrowed paintings from area galleries and included his Demikov in the mix. When he returned some paintings to the Alexander Iolas Gallery, he gave Iolas a list of the artists he showed. Iolas asked him who Demikov was.
Iolas wanted to do a show with his work but he wanted to meet Demikov first. Olitski said that wouldn’t be possible; Demikov hid from public meetings for fear of Soviet sympathizers. Iolas said he wouldn’t do a show unless he met the artist. Olitski broke down.
He froze and couldn’t say it in English so he revealed his identity in French: “Alors, Demikov, c’est moi.”
“Mr. Iolas answers with a shake of his shoulders and his palms up, and a sound, something like ‘Pouuuuf,’” Olitski wrote in 1989. “I think at that moment Mr. Iolas was not sure as to who I was: an escaped Russian or a lunatic American.”
Eight months later, Iolas gave Olitski his first New York show.
‘Get me out of my own way’
On the post-war abstract painting wave of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Olitski rose to prominence in the late 1950s, Nesin said.
Olitski painted through the nights in an airplane hangar-sized studio. He would surrender to a higher power in his studio, praying to God that the Almighty might help him get himself “out of the way.” He saw God as an artist because he thought his surroundings were so beautiful they had to have been created by a higher power, Kristina and his daughter Lauren Olitski Poster said.
To accomplish his work, the Olitskis ordered paint by the gallon — 20 to 30 gallons at least every other week.
Olitski’s style fluctuated for the rest of his life, Lauren said.
“Sometimes these shifts were pretty dramatic and I would think, ‘Where did this come from?’” Lauren said.
The TMA exhibit, which comes from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo., walks viewers through these different stages. Visitors willl start with his stain paintings, which are brightly colored, flat-surfaced depictions of shapes. Olitski accomplished this look by pouring paint directly onto the canvas and allowing the colors to bleed, creating a halo effect, Nesin said.
By the 1960s, Olitski was using an electric spray gun. These paintings appear grainy and are subtly textured like a stucco wall. Lauren said her father wished he could spray the air with color and allow an image to hang there; these paintings were the closest he could get.
The next set becomes more somber, coated in more muted colors than their previous counterparts. The High Baroque room shows Olitski’s work that is more akin to sculptures than paintings. Using a material that interferes with pigments to create a metallic look, Olitski used brooms and gloves to move around gallons of acrylic paint. The end result looks as though the paint is gushing from the canvas.
The last room shows Olitski’s latest paintings, which are more primary color-based and almost harken back to his first works with large, bold, circular color fields.
His work was always changing because he was always switching tools. Whether experimenting with an electric spray gun or heisting Kristina’s floor waxing tools, Olitksi saw ordinary objects as fascinating new aids to painting, Kristina said.
What can we learn about Olitski by gawking at his looming canvases?
“Beauty,” Kristina said. “Delight.”
Lauren said she sees a lesson in challenging oneself.
“It is a willingness to give yourself over and push yourself to the highest level of excellence,” she said. “Look how much one human being can do in a lifetime.”