Important survey at Museum of Fine Arts in Houston reexamines career of leading Color Field painter

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Important survey at Museum of Fine Arts in Houston reexamines career of leading Color Field painter
Jules Olitski, Prince Patutszky Pleasures, 1962. Magna acrylic on canvas. Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, Bebe and Crosby Kemper Collection, Gift of the R. C. Kemper Charitable Trust, 2009.21. Image © Estate of Jules Olitski/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; photo: Dan Wayne.

HOUSTON, TX.- Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski draws together more than 30 monumental canvases from public and private collections, profiling the career of Jules Olitski, a major figure in 20th-century art. Organized by the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and curated by E. A. Carmean Jr., Alison de Lima Greene and Karen Wilkin, this incisive survey will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, February 12–May 6, 2012, before traveling to the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, and the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, Washington, D.C.

Jules Olitski (1922–2007) has long received international acclaim for his maverick Color Field paintings of the 1960s. However, the larger arc of his career remains to be fully appreciated—an opportunity addressed by Revelation. The exhibition examines five decades of creative endeavor, highlighting the series that define Olitski’s major advances: Stain paintings, Spray paintings, Baroque paintings, High Baroque paintings and concludes with the last great series titled With Love and Disregard.

“Jules Olitski can be regarded as one of America’s last classic modern painters,” said Alison de Lima Greene, curator of contemporary art and special projects at the MFAH. “Throughout his career he embraced new media and techniques, but he always balanced even his most radical experiments with an acute sense of the history of art. As he continued to push the limits of painting, he also looked back to Rembrandt and El Greco.”

Among the paintings opening the exhibition, Prince Patuszky Pleasures, 1962, demonstrates Olitski’s assured command of Magna acrylic, a medium which allowed him to build his compositions through flat organic forms with vibrant color harmonies. In the years that followed he rapidly mastered the stain techniques allowed by acrylic paints and the open field of the raw canvas became a significant aspect of his work in the mid 1960s. At the same time, he formed strong alliances with Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, and Anthony Caro, as well as the influential critic Clement Greenberg, who became one of Olitski’s most profound friends and chief advocates.

The year 1966 saw both formal and professional breakthroughs in Olitski’s career. Aspiring to create a sense of weightless and suspended color, he began using a spray gun to apply pigment to his canvases. The resulting Spray paintings shimmer with radiant tones, assuming in the words of the artist “a new light, a new color.” Olitski introduced these works at the 33rd Venice Biennale of 1966, where along with Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ellsworth Kelly he represented the United States.

Dedicated to continuing to test the limits of abstraction, Olitski moved away from spray techniques in the mid the early 1970s, reintroducing gesture and brushwork in such magisterial compositions as Rephahim Shade – 2, 1974. With the High Baroque paintings of the 1980s he built up the surfaces of his compositions with iridescent pigments, at times using mops, brooms, and mitts to apply paint. In the last decade of his life, Olitski created some of his most impassioned and haunting canvases. Curator Karen Wilkin describes these last works: “They were everything that late style paintings are supposed to be: audacious, informed by accumulated knowledge, intolerant of the expected.”

Jules Olitski was born in 1922 in the Ukraine as Jevel Demikovsky. It was after he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1926 and his mother remarried that he changed his name to Jules Olitsky, which later evolved into Jules Olitski. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and then studied art in Paris on the GI Bill between 1949 and 1951 at the Ossip Zadkine School and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Olitski later earned a B.A. and an M.A. in art education from New York University. After teaching for many years first at C. W. Post College on Long Island, NY, and then at Bennington College, Olitski devoted himself fully to painting, printmaking and sculpture at his studio in Vermont and later in Bear Island, New Hampshire, and Islamorada, Florida.

In 1967, Olitski was awarded the Corcoran Gold Medal and William A. Clark Award at the 30th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Painters at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Corcoran then organized a major exhibition of his works that also traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Art, and in 1973, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston organized a retrospective that traveled to the Albright-Knox Gallery of Art in Buffalo, NY, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, NY. Since then, his works have been included in hundreds of exhibitions and may be found in collections around the world from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to Florence’s Uffizi Portrait Gallery.

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February 12, 2012

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