The late abstract artist Jules Olitski could be annoyed by the perennial question about his paintings: “What does it mean?”
“What does it mean?” he replied. “What does it mean? When you are making love do you ask, ‘What does it mean?’”
It simply meant Olitski was in love with color and art.
“I don’t know what (my new work) will look like. I hope God lets me get out of my way,” he would say.
In other words, he wanted to find fresh ideas, not become stuck in an established idiom as many artists have done.
Viewers learn this and more from a video accompanying “Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski” at the Patty and Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art, organized by the Kemper Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo. The show’s 26 paintings not only offer a positive presentation of this Ukrainian-born American master (1922-2007) but the video illustrates how he achieved his color field paintings. He used wide squeegees and other startling mediums while painting on canvas laid flat on his studio’s floor.
The Naples exhibition includes Olitski’s major techniques in which he first stained canvas. He moved on to layers of sprayed paint, then what the Kemper Museum curators call his “baroque and high baroque” styles, meaning in the widest, nonhistoric senses of those words: he would build up impasto on canvas and would shape his pigments in high swirling waves with his mitted hands.
In the last period represented, Olitski used a leaf-blower to give his paintings a driven, molten cosmic atmosphere, seen in “With Love and Disregard: Splendor,” 2002, among the last works in this exhibition.
If you go
'Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski'
Where: Patty and Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays through July 7.
Admission: Adults $10; students with valid ID $5; children 17 and younger free; members free
Information: Phone 239-597-1900 or online at thephil.org
Something else: Karen Wilkin, art historian, author, teacher will discuss Olitski’s work in the Daniels Pavilion at 10 a.m. Friday, March 15. Museum members $20; nonmembers $25
The Kemper curators have acknowledged that this survey only touches on Olitski’s larger output. Naples art lovers might know the artist was, and is, represented here by the Marianne Friedland Gallery on Broad Street, that held his last show in 2007 and will again show his work next year. At the Friedland Gallery one can see Olitski’s later paintings of natural atmosphere and sunsets.
“Jules started doing these based on Eugene Delacroix’s postcard colors,” Friedland said. These were painted at night in his studio-home in Islamagorda in the Florida Keys. His wife, Kristina, who made quilts, still lives there. Their daughter, painter Lauren Poster, oversees her father’s artistic estate.”
“Jules was always experimenting,” Friedland said. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art gave him a one-person show of painted steel sculptures in 1960, and he was represented in exhibitions from the 1940s to the 1970s. When he lived in Paris, he would blindfold himself and paint dabs on canvas. It was an exercise, a tool, to clear his sensibility.”
His own alias
In a 2002 interview for the Daily News, Olitski related how he had trouble making it into the art world, so he invented an imaginary Russian artist, “Demikov,” and succeeded in finally winning attention from a New York gallery for Demikov’s paintings which were of course his own.
The ovoid stained and sprayed paintings on unprimed canvas seem to suggest something more, and there they are nearby: a fine grouping of his large spray paintings that glow under gallery lights with veils of purple, blue, greens and gold on top of each other.
Preventing them from seeming to fly off the canvas into space without definition, Olitski was very specific in adding contrasts in some corners of the picture plane. There, individual hues become prominent, keeping these veils from floating off as it were without confinement.
Viewing it here
Going to the first floor gallery of the museum, the viewer finds the baroque and high baroque works. Among the most striking is “Viva la France 2,” 1994, where the surface is not only built up in a definite allover pattern but also stippled with pigment, much as Jackson Pollock worked earlier in the 1950s with his famous drip paintings. But these paintings are pure Olitski, who as a college art professor defeated the adage that “those who can’t paint, teach.”
This painting is carefully thought out in terms of its patterning, possibly achieved by squeezing pigment through a tube.
Overall “Viva la France 2” is a prodigious projection of energy and visual excitement. The small drips are meant to add just something more, as New Orleans people do when they offer “lagniappe.” Still, the drips are a part of the whole.
“Lives of Angels,” 1990, is one of a rhythmic series of high impasto in which the artist with his special eye was able to bring great globs of paint into a coherent design of luminous colors of unfaltering zigzag pattern rolling across the painting’s surface. It would be difficult to mistake the power of this work.
The high baroque paintings, a late experiment, lack the coherence of the preceding paintings. Their molten, outer-space feeling, their low and higher paint buildup are not as carefully integrated as before. Olitski used a leaf-blower to spread his colors and create a highly varnished encrusted presence. Still unsatisfied, he placed fiery colors between dark ones that suggest hot primordial lava rising through darker surfaces.
As the Kemper Museum curators say, a full survey of this important artist’s production lies in the future. But we can be thankful to have this much of it here. It is also good to know he has a gallery and a market in Naples.
Art critic Donald Miller lives in Naples. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org