It's safe to say that no matter when you go to the Singer Gallery at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, there's always something worth seeing. But to describe the current offering as being merely worthwhile would be a major understatement, because Jules Olitski: Half a Life's Work: Selected Paintings, 1972-2002 is utterly spectacular.
When the opportunity to do an Olitski solo presented itself last year, Singer director Simon Zalkind jumped at the chance. "My allegiance to doing this show was rooted in my memory of his earlier work," Zalkind says, referring to Olitski's 1960s color-field paintings that established the then-New York-based artist as a modern master.
To his most ardent supporters, personified by the late art critic Clement Greenberg, Olitski was seen as one of the most important painters in the country. This evaluation was based on his ability to achieve flatness, an important goal of formalist painters at the time. The issue of flatness was a philosophical argument as much as a visual one: A painting is basically an arrangement of pigment on a flat surface, so flatness is harmoniously consistent with its physical form. Since flatness precludes the supposedly reactionary illusion of three-dimensionality, being flat was seen as the ultimate expression of advanced painting. The style was even given the very futuristic-sounding name of post-painterly abstraction, which has long since fallen into disuse. It all sounds so quaint, doesn't it?
Olitski moved away from flatness beginning in the 1970s, and that's the starting-off point for the Singer show. Zalkind typically curates the exhibits here, but for this one he brought in guest curator William Biety, director of the Sandy Carson Gallery. Biety has known Olitski since the 1980s, when both were in Florida. After Biety moved to Denver in 2002, he met Zalkind and suggested the idea of doing this show.
Olitski now divides his time between Florida and New Hampshire, but he stores his work in an old factory in Vermont. That's where Biety went to select the pieces that he thought exemplified the different phases of the artist's work over the past thirty years, a period that is mostly little known. "He just kind of disappeared in the late '70s," Biety says. "He wasn't chic to younger critics -- I call it the Clement Greenberg curse -- but Jules is still around, and the work is still around, and it seems like the ideal time to rediscover him."
What Biety put together is not a retrospective, but rather a brief overview of Olitski's oeuvre from the past three decades. "There are fifteen paintings -- and that's not much of a survey -- but I wanted to show how Jules moved, so I chose good examples of his different types of work" Biety says. "I first chose a definitive '70s piece, and then a piece that showed the movement to the next thing, and so on. The earliest paintings are flat; then there are those with some texture; and finally, there are those where the texture itself started to become the topic."
Despite this rational approach to the selection process, Biety capriciously installed the show aesthetically and not in date order -- and that's really too bad. Undeniably, the Singer looks gorgeous the way Biety has hung it, but he's hidden Olitski's stylistic development.
The earliest works here are direct outgrowths of Olitski's color fields. As in those, one shade predominates, but unlike them, there's a freely associated pattern of tiny pigment bumps. In "Third Manchu," from 1974, the entire painting is little more than an ethereal, white-spattered ecru field. It's breathtaking, as is a similar composition, "Fertile Crescent Flesh-Five," from 1975. Both are done in acrylic on canvas, as are all the paintings in the show.
The next kind of work -- which indicates the movement Biety describes -- includes two paintings from 1981: "Only Capony-One" and "Fifth Coming." In these, multi-dimensional monochromes cover most of the picture plane, with tiny borders of different colored paints applied around the edges. "Fifth Coming," with its richly hued and engaging dotted surface, is particularly compelling.
The paintings from the 1990s have heavily impastoed surfaces and look like irreverent takes on abstract expressionism. Many have garish palettes, like 1991's outrageous "Escorial Mystery," done in thick smears of metallic paint, and the similarly conceived "Imbued," from 1993.
Supplementing these abstract paintings is a group of pastel drawings of funky landscapes that Olitski has done in the last year or so. Hung in the Singer balcony gallery, these drawings are charming and recall the romantic style of the nineteenth century, notably that of Albert Pinkham Ryder. "Jules has always pushed the envelope," says Biety, "even pushing his own envelope. Who else does that at 82?"
The paintings in Half a Life's Work only hint at Olitski's stylistic breadth, with work ranging from transcendental abstract paintings to unnervingly garish ones (which the artist himself calls "tawdry beauties"). Considering how many different kinds of things Olitski has done, it's interesting to notice that there's something that interconnects everything. The edifying effect of bearing witness to Olitski's unifying yet idiosyncratic vision is just one reason that Jules Olitski: Half a Life's Work: Selected Paintings, 1972-2002 at the Singer is one of the best shows of the 2003-2004 season.
Rule Gallery is also presenting a great show that features recent work by a contemporary master. The exhibit, Robert Rauschenberg: Selected Prints 1990-2001, is being done in cooperation with Universal Limited Art Editions, the New York atelier where they were pulled.
The recent prints at Rule exemplify the hybrid-abstract and representational style that first made Rauschenberg famous in the late '50s. At that time, he and his then-companion, Jasper Johns, were working hand in hand, inventing pop art. Rauschenberg forged his first connection with ULAE when Johns introduced him to the founder, the late Tatyana Grosman.
Rauschenberg, one of the most important artists of our time, was already using printmaking techniques in his paintings, but he preferred silkscreen to lithography, etching or intaglio. Later he began doing these techniques and others with a variety of printmakers. The Rauschenberg pieces in the Rule show were all done with Bill Goldston, ULAE's director and master printer.
The show includes examples from three different series: "Soviet American Array," from the early '90s; "Ground Rules," done in the mid-1990s; and "Ruminations," from the 2000s. The three series have distinctly different subject matters, but all are similar in style. This is especially true of the prints from "Ground Rules," which seem to differ only subtly from those in "Ruminations."
The three intaglios from the "Soviet American Array" series are distinguished from one another by Roman numerals. In them, Rauschenberg contrasts photos he took in the Soviet Union with those taken in the United States. The pairing is provocative and, because the Soviet Union no longer exists, imbued with the force of history.
These riveting compositions have a geometric quality because Rauschenberg preserved the rectangular frames of the photo originals and arranged them like tiles across the paper. Since he used multiple plates to create the prints, the impression marks have also been preserved, creating another, more subtle geometric pattern that follows the dominant one, line for line. The richly colored prints, whose inks were flawlessly adhered to the thick, luxurious rag paper, are a real tribute to master printer Goldston.
In "Soviet American Array I," there's acidic yellow, various shades of indigo, an unusual shade of red and, of course, lots of creamy white from the paper itself. The composition is brilliant: A bust of Lenin sits in the bottom right corner, with a pair of vertically stacked images of two soldiers above and, to the left, a paired image of the Twin Towers -- chosen long before September 2001. The real eye-catcher, though, is the indigo-colored, nearly nude young man sitting on a fire hydrant that's placed at the top center against a red image of one of the cathedrals on Kremlin Square.
The "Ground Rules" series is done in a new technique, a darkroom-based photogravure process. These prints mostly feature images of old-timey objects crammed next to and over one another, filling the picture panel to overflowing.
"Ruminations," the last of the three series, is somewhat melancholic because Rauschenberg, a man in his seventies, is looking back at his own childhood. The images of himself and his family are positively vaporous and ghostly, in part because he's laid them on top of one another, but also because many of the people in them are now dead. The margins of the images have been expressively handled and the palette is very quiet, with mostly tones of gray standing out against the bare, white paper. It's a neat effect that makes it seem as though Rauschenberg simply spilled liquefied family snapshots onto the paper. "Big and Little Bullies," done, like all of the "Ruminations" prints, in intaglio, is the clear standout here.
Rather than separate the three series into individual displays, director Robin Rule has mixed the prints up, and it's clear to see why: The monumental and wildly colored prints in the "Soviet American Array" series are so in-your-face that had they been hung together, they would have overwhelmed the more subtle charms of the smaller prints from the "Ground Rules" and "Ruminations" series. Even as it is, it was hard for me to take my eyes off the three "Soviet American Array" prints scattered around the room and look at the rest of the show.
There are only a couple of days left to see Robert Rauschenberg: Selected Prints, 1990-2001 at Rule. It was a last minute add-on to the gallery's exhibition schedule, and it's been given an extremely abbreviated run that ends on Saturday, May 8. If you haven't seen it yet, you're going to have to hustle to get over there in time.
Get the Arts and Theater Newsletter
Weekly information keeping you in the know when it comes to the art and theater scene. Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events.