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The Great Beginning of Jules Olitski

In the early 1960s, Jules Olitski (1922-2007) made some of the most astounding abstract paintings of the 20th century. Many of them still astound — 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. Both conditions are established by “Jules Olitski: Color to the Core” at Yares Art in Midtown.

This is the largest show devoted to an important phase of Olitski’s career, 1960 to 1964. He had his first solo exhibition in New York in 1958, showing thick-surfaced canvases that are called the “Spackle” paintings. Almost immediately, he jumped on the Color Field painting bandwagon and found a method of stain painting that was bold in every way. Dominated by irregular spheres of saturated color that were either very large, if not looming, or very small, these seemingly simple works mess with space and scale in a visceral, almost sculptural way.

They are purely abstract, with tremendous formal power, or as it has come to be known, wall power. But they also come at us with cartoonish verve, like giant balloons, billiard balls or slices of huge planets. Clustered seeds, gestating eggs, dividing cells and burrowing creatures are also suggested, and even pimento olives, as in the overbearing Cyclops of “Mushroom Perfume.”

One of the achievements of the Core paintings is to tacitly ignore the medium’s physical limits, implying that the image extends far beyond the canvas, and is part of a much larger expanse. In front of some of these paintings you can feel like you’re drifting in the weightless silence of outer space. In works like “Fatal Plunge Lady” (1963), with its tabloid headline for a title, we seem to be about to land, lunar-module style, on a beautiful burnt orange astral body distantly orbited by a tiny red satellite, buffered by a patch of green. The effect of works like this are goofy, disorienting and awe-inspiring, and unlike anything else the Color Fielders produced.

Color Field took shape in 1952 when Helen Frankenthaler started staining raw canvas with dousings of thinned-down paint, merging aspects of Jackson Pollock’s drip technique with Mark Rothko’s dense, brushy blocks of color. The method was quickly adopted by Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. The style had its own in-house champion in the legendary art critic, Clement Greenberg, and his acolytes who saw Color Field as heir to Abstract Expressionism, the rest be damned. It was a narrow viewpoint based on a strictly linear succession of styles, each one destined to bring a particular art medium closer to its physical essence. In painting’s case this was a flat surface with four corners.

Starting in the mid-1960s, Color Field was overshadowed by Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, and Greenberg’s authority shrank. When he said in 1990 that Olitski was “the best painter alive” it carried little weight. Color Field had been marginalized, at least in New York. Consequently, sightings of early Olitskis were rare and thrilling, and always left you, or at least me, thirsting for more.

That thirst is satiated by the Yares show. It contains nearly 30 examples of the Core paintings, accompanied by some rough oil pastel studies and, as a kind of footnote, a few examples of Olitski’s next phase, which started in 1964 when he began using a spray gun. Compared with the Core works’ more confrontational, boisterous stance, the Spray paintings are elegant and demure. They behave themselves. Their fields of soft misty colors stay put, constrained by lines brushed along the canvas edges. Found in countless museum collections across the country, the Spray paintings hew much closer to Greenberg’s ideal and are generally considered Olitski’s mature work.

This show is a bit too big and uneven, but it lets you see the development of Olitski’s technique, rounded forms and kinetic space. You also see the way his simple shapes and often surprising color choices align Color Field with Pop Art’s cheer and cheapness and Minimalism’s austerity.

The show demonstrates that Olitski took to stain painting gradually. In the paintings from 1960 to ’62, he doesn’t seem to be working on raw canvas and covers the entire surface with paint with somewhat clunky results. In “Fanny D” (1960), the show’s first painting suggests brightly colored eggs contained by a pink basket, nest or teething ring — that careers across a lavender field. In “Fair Charlotte” (1961) the colors toughen: Two orbs of different blues are edged in brown or in black (with a touch of hot pink) and galvanized by a very pushy background of egg-yolk yellow. In the more balanced “Thursday” (1962), that same yellow is yolk-shaped, and furnace-like, insulated by hot pink and ultramarine against red.

Sometime in 1962, with works like “Fatal Plunge Lady” and “Mushroom Perfume,” Olitski seems to have committed fully to staining on raw canvas, some of which he left bare and this livened things up. His colors become luminous and the backgrounds open up. The shapes float; paintings breathe.

Olitski’s shapes gives us formalism at its most ferocious and most fun. Academically trained, he thought of himself as a kind of old master; Rembrandt was his hero. He drew from the nude most of his life and with the titles of his abstractions, he rarely let you forget the presumption of the male gaze. I can hear the defense now: But he loved women. Clearly, he did but in such a limited, limiting way, even though his paintings have sometimes been called feminine.

Olitski has been ripe for reconsideration for some years. He worked furiously until his death in 2007, moving toward and away from Greenberg’s ideas. And his work is useful to painters: female ones especially started riffing on Color Field in the late 1990s, and there’s a renewed appreciation for color. This show gets things started with a catalog containing three excellent essays and the most comprehensive chronology of the artist’s life. There’s a lot to work with.

Jules Olitski: Color to the Core

Through March 12 at Yares Art; 745 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, Manhattan; (212) 256-0969,

Roberta Smith, the co-chief art critic, regularly reviews museum exhibitions, art fairs and gallery shows in New York, North America and abroad. Her special areas of interest include ceramics textiles, folk and outsider art, design and video art. @robertasmithnyt

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