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Jules Olitski: Yares Art, New York

In celebration of what would have been the year that Jules Olitski (1922–2007) turned one hundred, Yares Art presents just as many of the painter’s works in this marvelous retrospective, which covers every aspect of his long career. Beautifully installed, the exhibition is a tour de force of a twentieth-century master—that is, an artist who was capable of providing us with an ever-changing “sensation of the new,” to refer to Charles Baudelaire’s famous remark, amplified by the French poet’s assertion that modernism is “the transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid.” Was there any artist who was able to change so rapidly and as frequently as he did while remaining obsessed with color? Chroma was transcendentally important to Olitski, as we can see in his “Matter Paintings” of the late 1950s—raw, coarsely layered, rough-hewn things—or in the more thinly coated and refined “Spray Paintings” of the 1960s and ’70s, compositions where he carefully finessed the flatness of the canvas while emphasizing it. (Along with Hans Hartung, Olitski was a pioneer in the use of the spray gun.) After creating these so-called post-painterly abstractions, Olitski returned, with a seemingly boundless energy fraught with “sublime” feeling (as Immanuel Kant would have characterized it), to painterly abstractions, among them the “Squeegee” pictures of the 1970s and ’80s and the “Mitt” pieces of the early 1990s. Across these two bodies of work, Olitski’s strong, vigorous hand is evident. These paintings possess a visceral urgency, an unrelenting and palpably physical forcefulness.

Olitski’s Code of Shem, 1990—a muddy yet coruscating work roughly sixty-nine inches square, full of queasy yellows, shimmering blues, milky reds, and scratchy blacks—alludes to the artist’s Jewish faith. (Shem is a Hebrew word that means “renown” and was the name of Noah’s first son, who was regarded as a prophet.) A direct (but more generously scaled) descendant of Shem is Ark Dancer, 1990, which also references Judaism or, more specifically, the Hasidim, a group whose men celebrate the Ark of the Covenant by ecstatically dancing around it. In 1990, Olitski also painted Lives of Angels, a composition with a thickly impastoed surface that calls to mind the wings of those titular creatures, reminding us that for Olitski, abstraction—which, like Judaism, eschews the idols of representation—was a spiritual art, a “form of mysticism,” as Robert Motherwell once described it. This language is numinous, singular, otherworldly—indeed, like the whispers of divine beings.

Olitski may be an idolater of color and form—most pointedly in his earlier works, such as Doll Walker, 1961, which features a bright-pink, amoeba-like figure outlined with a thick band of dark lilac and nestled on a celadon ground—but all of this is in service to a higher purpose. After all, it is in pure abstract painting where “one imagines that . . . the immediate exists” and seems “nothing short of miraculous,” according to art historian Yves Bonnefoy. Indeed, Olitski had a preternatural ability to make his art insistently immediate and sensationally new. But to use William James’s phrase, the “subliminal uprush” of Olitski’s later and more gestural paintings, with their inventive modes of execution (a revivifying “dash of strangeness,” to quote Baudelaire once more) makes them a miracle of immediacy.


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