Modern Classics

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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia