Change of Scenery

Warren Kelly, Jules Olitski and Christo make contemporary art about the landscape.

Over the years, Olitski has relentlessly experimented, creating work in a huge variety of formalist abstract styles, but nothing represents as much of an aesthetic departure as these new works at Sandy Carson, which are crudely yet luxuriously executed landscapes and seascapes. Despite such a radical change in direction, the new pieces do bear some relationship to his classic work. The backgrounds are handled like color fields, as usual, but on top, Olitski places recognizable objects, especially trees and sailboats -- and that's not usual.

I first saw Olitskis of this type last year in a show at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. Then, as now, they reminded me of the style of the visionary nineteenth-century American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose awkward and expressive works were a source for the kind of modernist abstraction that made Olitski famous a generation ago.

Olitski, who is 83, divides his time between homes in Florida and New Hampshire and a studio warehouse in Vermont. William Biety, director of the Sandy Carson Gallery, met the artist in Florida in the 1980s and has remained in contact with him. So when Biety decided to do this show, he was able to visit the Vermont studio and select the pieces he wanted to include.

"El Prado," by Warren Kelly, digital print.
"El Prado," by Warren Kelly, digital print.
"Once Upon a Time in Tavernier," by Jules Olitski, 
pastel on rag paper.
"Once Upon a Time in Tavernier," by Jules Olitski, pastel on rag paper.


Original + Digital
Through August 14, Pirate: a contemporary art oasis, 3659 Navajo Street, 303-458-6058

Jules Olitski
Through August 18, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303-573-8585

The exhibit is installed in the front gallery and starts off with a very traditional-looking painting, "Once Upon a Time in Tavernier," done in pastel on rag paper earlier this year. The composition, with its big, gnarly tree up front and sailboats in the middle, resembles a stage. The clouds reinforce this impression because they appear to be a proscenium. In the most abstract of Olitski's works, the composition runs side to side and top to bottom, with no defining framework within the picture, as in the extremely Ryder-ish "Green Sea Passage," which depicts a sailboat, done in black and white, placed in the middle of a field of alternating grays and greens. "Green Sea Passage" is from 2001, making it one of the oldest pieces in the exhibit.

At first the paintings in Jules Olitski struck me as primitive, even childlike, but the longer I looked at them, the more elegant they became. Maybe even sophisticated.

Speaking of sophisticated contemporary art based on the landscape, the artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, have resurrected "Over the River," their plan unveiled in 1992 to cover a portion of the Arkansas River in Southern Colorado with canvas panels stretched between the two banks.

Christo became famous in the 1960s for his epic conceptual installations, of which "Over the River" is the latest example. Earlier this year he did his most popular piece ever, "The Gates," in New York's Central Park. This installation of freestanding lintels with pieces of fabric hanging from the cross-members, arranged along a labyrinth of existing park paths, attracted tens of thousands of visitors, who spent nearly $100 million while in the Big Apple.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude were in Colorado last week to describe their proposal to the locals and to get the red tape rolling with regard to county, state and federal permits. The pair would like to pull off "Over the River" in 2008, which sounds like a long time in the future; considering the scope of the project, however, it's actually more like the day after tomorrow. To meet this deadline, the various bureaucrats involved will have to expedite the process, though that seems unlikely. But at least the couple has experience with Colorado rules, having installed "Valley Curtain" across Rifle Gap in 1972.

One legitimate concern about "Over the River" is the environmental impact of both the piece itself, which will need to be anchored into the rock on either side of the river, as well as the many problems associated with thousands of people flocking to a natural environment. On the bright side, the Christo crew are pros, and are thus up to the job of minimizing the negative effects of the piece -- or at least repairing it afterward.

"Over the River" is likely to be Christo's last major work, and I can't wait to see it.

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