Jules Olitski: Works on Paper

May 10, 2006-July 14, 2006

Luther W. Brady Art Gallery,

George Washington University (GWU)


“When my husband sells a painting, he gets down on his knees and thanks G-d,” Kristina told me of her husband, Jules Olitski, at an opening of his work in Washington, D.C.

Talking with Olitski at the opening, I was struck that the artist, who was hailed as “the best living painter” by art critic Clement Greenberg over 20 years ago, was so humble. He showed up to the GWU opening modestly dressed in jeans with a black blazer and shirt, and he declined to address the audience, save thanking his friends and family who came from afar. His smile is at once enchanting and intense, and he responded to my questions – which he has fielded countless times from far better-informed reporters – in a friendly, attentive fashion.

Olitski, 84, has not been seduced by the big money lining the pocketbooks of postmodernist art that currently plagues the museum world. He hasn’t floated sharks in formaldehyde like British sensation Damien Hirst, nor has he devoted himself to crude video reels that would take viewers days to experience, like American blockbuster “artist,” Matthew Barney. He hasn’t abandoned good drawing for slickness like John Currin, nor has he assumed a bohemian approach to his celebrity status.

Instead, Olitski comes from a generation of painters who were passionate about paint, who had a childish naïveté about their handling of paint, and who didn’t feel the need to make “high art” by turning their paintings into ideas. Olitski’s newest body of monoprints (prints that are unique, not serial) is a sequence of decisive enterprises: paint applied simply in beautiful colors, without too much fussing around and “prettying” up the surface.

The monoprints evoke the kind of cake icing that frosts pre-teen birthday cakes: gooey, sweet, tempting and beautiful. A large part of their appeal is nostalgic. Olitski has childlike fun making his work, which is about the highest praise I can conceive of to pay an artist. Whenever I see the works, I am reminded of kindergarten projects with wax paper and finger paints.

Born Yevel (or Jevel) Demikovsky in Snovsk, Russia, Olitski is most renowned for his involvement with the Color Field School of painting. His work was (and is) revolutionary for the use of thinned paints that literally stain the canvas, creating a misty atmosphere.

Olitski’s works (like the artist himself) don’t try to “do” anything; they simply “are”, in a classy way.

This distinction is not to be taken lightly. “Amid Sailboats An Angel” perfectly typifies this trajectory of being, not doing. The palette is a study in sweet-sixteen party design: pink, purple, yellow, orange white, and light blue. The sailboats and angel employ darker colors, but they are rendered out of focus, almost like the famous “picture” of the Loch Ness Monster. Like in many of Olitski’s works, the viewer can never feel absolutely certain of the content of the work, but only of the temperament.

The piece offers no explanation as to what business the angel has with the sailboats. Perhaps the angel was sent to save the sailboats, which appear on the verge of sinking in a whirlpool of orange, pink and yellow. But it seems as likely that the angel was sent to sink the boats for some irreparable sin committed by their crews, in a sea all the more terrifying and ironic for its soothing pinks and yellows. Or it’s likely that the whirlpool is not a whirlpool at all, but a sea of divine light raising the boats to the heavens – alive, like Elijah.

Like the angel and sailboats, “Jakim’s Dream“- which reads as a landscape with a yellow sunset reflecting upon green, blue and pink water – is complicated in its content. Jakim probably refers to the king Jehoiachim (a.k.a. Elyakim, Jehoiakim or Yehoyachim), who is called evil in G-d’s eyes and who dies for his sins. Although Jehoiachim was the son of King Josiah, he was not the favorite to assume his father’s throne upon his death at Megiddo. The Judahites selected Josiah’s younger son Jehoahaz (or Shallum), as king. Jehoiachim gained the throne with the blessing of the Egyptian conqueror, Necho, who stole Jehoahaz away to Egypt. Jehoiachim was thus a foreigner in a sense, imposed upon the community from without. (Necho demanded a heavy tribute for his pains).

However an insider, Jehoiachim was happy to abandon his patron when the new Chaldean Empire under Nebuchadrezzar II conquered Egypt. He would remain by Nebuchadrezzar for three years before rebelling. He eventually died a brutal death when Nebuchadrezzar put down the Judean rebellion. The Talmud, in tractate Sanhedrin, reveals two important components of the Jehoiachim story. No matter how many attempts were made to bury the king’s skull, it kept resurfacing. The Talmud accounts for this rejection of the body by the earth by explaining how very evil Jehoiachim was – so evil that despite the promise to Noah to never again destroy the world, G-d was prepared to return the world to “emptiness and nothingness” (to’hu va’vohu) on Jehoiachim’s account.

And yet, however fascinating Jehoiachim’s story, the monoprint has nothing to do with any dream of the king’s, mostly because the Bible records no such dream.

Regardless of whether Olitski’s image is really a reference to Jehoiachim (and it is my guess that other works from the show are also biblical, like “After the Fire” referring to Elijah in 1 Kings, “Dancing Hannah” and “Reumah Waiting“), Jehoiachim is a perfect metaphor for the piece. He was powerful, yet a stooge imposed from without. He was hated by G-d, and yet, his death and the absence of a proper burial somehow atoned for his sins.

The monoprint image shows a powerful tension. It draws viewers in with its seductive colors (it appears trustworthy) but upon further inspection, many of the lines that appeared soft and curvaceous emerge jagged and dangerous. The motion that appeared circular and rounded before is instead meandering. Like Jehoiachim’s skull, the forms constantly seem ready to be swallowed up by the ground, but they are spit back up and rejected. I am reminded of what Indian Jewish painter Siona Benjamin told me about her work, which embeds dangerous, dynamic images within beautiful forms.

In this work, as in “King David’s Letter 3” (1974), reproduced in Karen Wilkin’s and Bruce Guenther’s indispensable work, “Clement Greenberg: A Critic’s Collection” (Princeton University Press, 2001), Olitski produces images that are at once beautiful and dynamic. On the accompanying page, Wilkin and Guenther record a quote from Olitski. “Good art,” Clem would say, “gives me a lift,” I told him of Nicolas Poussin’s remark that “the goal of art is delight.” Clem nodded in agreement but said he preferred the word pleasure. Pleasure, he maintained, is a value in itself. High art gave him pleasure.

King David’s Letter 3” is dominated by an ochre palette (like a king’s golden crown?), but the brushstrokes are not of equal weight. Some parts thicken, some thin out. Some strokes are timid, passive and indecisive, while others are bold and almost angry. The work undoubtedly refers to King David’s letter, secretly calling for Uriah’s death so that the king could marry Bathsheba (or could it be any number of other “letters” he wrote, like his Psalms in note form to G-d?) Like David’s personality, the work shows decisiveness and direction at times, yielding to passivity and decline at others.

But what is most unique about Olitski – the man and the painter – is his kindness. The lines that Wilkin and Guenther record about Greenberg could apply equally to Olitski’s painting. “He was extremely generous with his time and energy, always prepared to make studio visits [to see artists’ work] He always put out (no matter how exhausting) always found something within himself to give the painter or sculptor, so that they came away having received help and feeling hopeful He felt that one should never leave an artist’s studio without finding something useful to say, something to give encouragement, to open a path.”

Olitski’s work is always fun to look at, always beautiful. If you look deeper and deeper into the work as a viewer, you may find more troubled subterranean springs, but you always return to the beauty of the work, never able to discern whether they are your own invention, or truly lurking in the work.

Menachem Wecker is a painter and the assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at [email protected]

NOTE: I gratefully acknowledge the background information for this article gleaned from the Encyclopedia Britannica online. The encyclopedia is accessible online (by subscription) at www.britannica.com




Jules Olitski. “Amid Sailboats An Angel” (2004). Monotype on all rag paper, 16 x 19 3/4. All photos courtesy of Knoedler & Company, New York.



“Jakim’s Dream” (2005). Monotype on all rag paper, 13 7/8 x 13 7/8 inches.



Jules Olitski. “After the Fire” (2004). Monotype on all rag paper, 14 3/4 x 14 7/8 inches.






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Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia.