Prior to this exhibition, I associated Jules Olitski with his stained color field canvases from the early 1960s. But like my experience of most solo exhibitions, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the dramatic range of paintings he produced throughout his nearly fifty-year career. Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski at American University Museum walks the viewer through Olitski’s creative evolution as an abstract artist, demonstrating the breadth of his experiments in light, color, texture, application and technique. Olitski’s career serves as a paradigm for modern painting in the second half of the twentieth century, as he continually challenged the medium through experimentation, pushing each element to the boundaries of abstraction.
Laid out across three lofty gallery spaces in the curvilinear Katzen Art Center, Olitski’s career unfolds through five distinct stylistic chapters – Stain Paintings (1960-1964), Spray Paintings (1965-1970), Baroque Paintings (1973-1981), High Baroque Paintings (1983-1989), and Late Paintings (2000-2006). The space’s shape initially made for a confusing layout; it was only through a very helpful printed gallery guide that I became aware of the intentional chronological flow of the exhibition. Despite my difficulties with the layout, the tall ceilings and bright galleries were optimal for viewing each colossal densely colored and textured canvas.
Olitski’s stain paintings welcome you into the exhibition, where geometric shapes of acrylic color appear to float on raw canvas, creating harmonious, whimsical compositions much like those of fellow color field painters Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis. Across the room, lofty clouds of electric colors fill the canvas and vibrate off his spray paintings. These paintings are stunning in person, bringing the artist great praise at the 1966 Venice Biennale. And yet, in 1973, he moved on to his so-called “baroque paintings,” which upon first glance have a hard time standing out next to the punchy stain paintings and compelling spray paintings, but are equally compelling upon closer inspection. Olitski used a combination of rollers, sprayers and squeegees to create the rough built-up surfaces in these muted monochromatic canvases that beg to be touched. Moving into the exhibition’s second gallery, the textures get increasingly richer and the tone of the exhibition becomes more serious and contemplative. The high baroque paintings are complex canvases formed from thick globs of metallic impasto reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, echoing his allover compositions, gestural brushwork and brooding melancholic effect. The rich texture and metallic pigments produce a shimmering effect of movement and shadows. The final gallery presents Olitski’s late paintings, which truly represent the culmination of his many years of experimentation. The canvases combine the bright colors and circular shapes of his early work with the dense textures of his later work, resulting in a dynamic, cosmic aesthetic.
Painting was a spiritual experience for Olitski. He describes, “I’ve come to believe that this power I can surrender to in my studio is indeed a higher power.” Beyond the playful colors and pleasing compositions, the artist reveals a serious and emotional side through his works. Through the exhibition, it becomes clear how the word ‘revelation’ is tied to Olitski. It may refer to the revelation that Olitski had each time he sat in his in studio and was struck with an idea, or the revelation of each new stylistic chapter of painting, or the revelation of a new means of applying paint whether it be via spray gun, roller, leaf blower or using his own hands. Through experimentation in paint, Olitski continued to challenge his own aesthetic and push the limits of abstraction.
Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski is on view at the American University Art Museum through December 16.