Jules Olitski, The Late Paintings:
Through January 5, 2008
Knoedler & Company
19 East 70th Street, New York, NY
Paul Brach: Recent Paintings,
His Last Hurrah (1924-2007)
Through January 19, 2008
547 West 27th Street, New York, NY
Art criticism is often a messy business that has a lot to do with passing judgment. Other times it bears an uncanny resemblance to writing eulogies. Whichever model it adopts – to praise or to pan? – it is just as hard to define what constitutes a good Jewish artist, as it is a good Jewish person or even simply a good person. When a painting is young, it is easy to reprimand it (“This will hurt me more than it will you, junior”) and to lecture it (“Try a blue instead of this yellow”). But when an artist’s body of work is to be considered after her or his death, a bit of perspective and respect should be wielded.
When R. B. Kitaj died in October of this year, his work was a no-brainer to be considered Jewish art. How many other artists have gone so far as to compose not one, but several Diasporist Manifestoes? When Kitaj complained about critics, he piled on charges of anti-Semitism as well. This is surely a man who considered himself a Jewish artist.
But other artists leave more room for questions, among them Jules Olitski and Paul Branch, both recently deceased. Yet the work of both artists, currently on exhibit in two separate shows in New York, ensures a legacy for both artists not only as great wielders of the brush, but also as great Jewish artists. The trick is to allow a little more elasticity to the term.
Paul Brach: According to Alan D. Abbey’s obituary, “Paul Brach, 83, U.S., artist, Nov. 16,” on the website he edits, In My Heart – Where Jewish Memories Live Forever, Brach’s late work “expressed the eternal Jewish struggle of man’s relationship with God.” Abbey, who lives in Jerusalem and is founder, president and CEO of Abbey Content Enterprises, quotes Eleanor Flomenhaft, co-director of the Flomenhaft Gallery, as saying that great, learned men perpetually struggle with their relationship with God.
Paul Brach, “The Geometry of Faith (Sinai)” (1999), courtesy Flomenhaft Gallery.
“You must see ‘Sinai’ in person,” Flomenhaft told Abbey of Brach’s painting “The Geometry of Faith: Heaven and Earth” (1999). “You will see the tablets . . . and Sinai below it, and you will see the web of the world around it. It glows with an inner light.” Abbey further paraphrases from the interview, “Brach’s work expresses that God is that being who has that center, but the circumferences – the edges – blur. That’s because the end – the infinity – of God is everywhere and nowhere. He couldn’t make it exact.”
Yet, according to the artist’s biography on the gallery’s website, Brach attended the Brooklyn Ethical Culture School, which he said, “was like Unitarianism for the children of Jewish socialists.” In a catalog from a 2005 show at the Flomenhaft Gallery titled “Paul Brach: 1985-2005,” Bradley Bailey, assistant professor of art history at Stephen F. Austin State University, wrote that Brach characterized himself as a “Jewish atheist.”
Paul Brach, “The Round Zion #2” (2002), courtesy Flomenhaft Gallery.
“Jewish atheist” is of course a problematic term. To be human is surely to doubt, and even the Torah’s greatest believers have been the greatest doubters. That’s why Moses never set foot in Israel, and why so many Jews perished in the desert from a variety of plagues and other punishments. So how does Flomenhaft maintain Brach “expresses that God is that being who has that center” even as Bailey argues Brach was an atheist?
In an interview with The Jewish Press, Flomenhaft saidshe believes Brach’s words might not exactly correspond with his art. “As an art historian, curator and friend of Paul’s, I find that what Paul said at one particular time about his art and the intensity with which he concentrated on the subject of religion/spirituality in several series of paintings over the years are at odds,” she said, “indicating a struggle with the subject rather than a complete rejection of it.”
Katrina Ellis, who manages the gallery, saw similar religious aspects to Brach’s work. “As I have been sitting with these paintings surrounding me for the past few weeks, I am very aware of their spirituality – perhaps I would call it a search for God,” she said. “Can one do that in a painting? If so, I would attest to these paintings doing so.”
Most people familiar with Brach no doubt know him as founding dean of the renowned art school at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), but the debate about the question of faith in his work between Ellis, Flomenhaft and Bailey surely adds another dimension to the artist’s work.
Jules Olitski, whose work is on exhibit at Knoedler gallery, is no stranger to this column. On June 7, 2006, I reviewed his show at George Washington University’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery. At the opening to the show, which turned out to be one of Olitski’s final shows during his lifetime, the artist’s wife, Kristina, had told me, “When my husband sells a painting, he gets down on his knees and thanks God.”
Jules Olitski, “Moses Pathavender and Green” (2001), courtesy Knoedler Gallery.
In his catalog essay to the Knoedler show, Norman Kleeblatt, Susan and Elihu Rose chief curator at The Jewish Museum in New York, explains how Olitski’s early success essentially became the albatross around his neck. Olitski attracted the attention of art critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, but according to Kleeblatt, this attention “situated his pictures from the 1960s as part of a well-known, if somewhat narrow cannon, blocking Olitski’s subsequent achievements from being seen within the wider pluralist practices of the 1970s to now.”
Yet, the trajectory of Olitski’s painting career in some ways follows that of a painter like Picasso, whose work is so diverse that it refuses to be pigeonholed in one “style.” Kleeblatt observes that some of the works in the Knoedler show “were among the first pictures Olitski made after his surgery for lung cancer in 2000 – a revelation of a man who thought he would neither survive surgery nor paint again.” Kleeblatt sees these works as a departure from Olitski’s earlier work, which often invoked Biblical characters (works at the Knoedler show include Bathsheba, Solomon and Moses), and a move toward abstraction, “but a kind of abstraction forever freighted with imagery.”
Jules Olitski, “Bathsheba Reverie – Yellow and Black” (2000), courtesy Knoedler Gallery.
The same sort of discussion about infinity and God that surrounds Brach’s work, also surfaces with Olitski’s. According to Kleeblatt, “Olitski’s painterly effects allude to atmospheric phenomena and the sense of awe for the cosmos.” Further, he notices in Olitski’s work evidence of the artist’s “close connection with both nature and ethical humanism. They also evince his belief in a power outside himself and the potential for creativity within each individual.” Kleeblatt concludes his essay with Olitski’s “oft-reiterated mantras: ‘wonder is sacred’ and ‘creation is communion with a divine source.‘“
Both Brach and Olitski seem to have drawn their artistic inspiration, at least to some extent and in some form, from a Divine source. Even as artists, insofar as they are human, must eventually pass on, some parts of the artists manage to live on in their works. The paintings of Olitski and Brach have a lot to say about paint application, about the Color Field “movement,” and about abstraction and Minimalism, but they also present provocative meditations on the spirit and upon faith, and that ensures that they will remain relevant to audiences even many years after the artists’ deaths.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.