Asking Jules Olitski “What’s it like to be forgotten?”: the great colourist and the whims of fate

Clement Greenberg said he was “the greatest painter” alive; then in the 70s the world stopped talking about Jules Olitski

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Earlier this year I had a book published called It hurts: New York art from Warhol to now. The book isn’t hard going, it just trawls through lots of stories. In the middle of it Jules Olitski appears, working at night in his studio on Bear Island, in New Hampshire, with his cassettes playing. Outside are the moonlight, the whispering pines, the wide dark lake. On the walls of the studio are some paintings with a lot of thick matter. Mostly abstract, some of the paintings have triangle forms like sails, or mountain forms, or a yellow sun, or a white or violet one. Plus there are rows of watercolours and pastels of mountain scenes, sunsets, mermaid-type figures. (“Not mermaids!”, he corrected me recently: “I was getting into naked angels!”)

The book describes a conversation I had with him there as he was painting. Not exactly as he was doing it but just before the plastic pots of gels and pastes and coloured goos and the industrial blower and hairy-backed house-painters‚ mitts and one or two conventional artists‚ brushes—came out. The kinds of materials he has been using since the 60s when he became internationally famous as a colour field painter.

I asked him how it felt to be this forgotten artist, whom Clement Greenberg once considered to be “the greatest painter alive”. He said he was very moved when he read what Greenberg had written because he knew how much it would have cost the great critic in terms of insults and attacks. “But you know, he added, I’m not totally forgotten!” On the other hand he knew what I meant and he wasn’t offended by my question.

In It hurts, I say a cold wind blew on Olitski’s type of art, no one knows why, and now he works in more or less a void. I know it’s not nice to say these things but I couldn’t pretend they weren’t on my mind. And I really was interested—how do you know what to do if nobody’s giving you any feedback? What’s the point? Is there really such as thing as just being innately serious, or just getting joy from painting? Can those be enough?

I saw Olitski again recently. This time it was in New York, where he was staying in a nephew’s little apartment—very simple—with his wife Kristina. He was going to the hospital every month for a course of treatments for a serious illness. On this occasion he said that in the colour-field heyday, the 60s and early 70s, there was a lot of competition. Success was measured in prices, reviews, big international shows. There was pressure as well.

“Oh I hated it!” he said, about the paranoia and conspiracy theories that were an inevitable part of the pressure. The healthy part of course he didn’t hate. Being close to artists he admired, teaching with them, being around their studios, exchanging ideas. But when the big freeze came in the early 70s—and stayed forever—it was easier to cope with it when he remembered the tortures that went with success. Another thing that made it easier was that he’d begun as an artist out in the cold. In fact he’d once tried to commit suicide by freezing himself to death. He sat up naked all night by an open window on a lonely farm outside Paris. “But I was too strong to die—too stupid!”

He struggled for years to make it. Initially the struggle was to believe he could be anything at all after an unfortunate, bleak childhood. He was an immigrant from Russia, brought up by a harsh stepfather who taught him to believe he was an idiot. And then the struggle was to get his paintings taken seriously by a scene that already had plenty of stuff like the stuff he was doing at the time—the 1950s. “You’re good,” one dealer told him. “But I can’t use you.”

He got his first serious show in New York by pretending, in desperation, that he wasn’t himself but someone else, an agent, representing the works of an exiled Russian persecuted by Stalin. The deception worked and the show was seen by Greenberg who praised it in a review. Olitski sent Greenberg a card, Greenberg replied, they met and after that things went smoother. But it was partly because Olitski was a teacher now as well as a painter and so through his own efforts he’d begun to believe in himself anyway. (Although ironically he wasn’t using his own name but the name of the hated stepfather, Olitski, which is the name he still uses today.)

But before the smoothness it was all weirdness and wrongness. He still seems unclear about why abstract art became the thing for him. Sometimes he talks about it in a mystical, arty way, sometimes in a literal way. He wanted to “immerse” himself in something, to lose himself, lose the world, get in touch with a miraculous feeling of utter rightness that only abstract painting can offer. Or he just wanted to see what some blobs would do or what some green would do.

He remembers drawing from a news photo of Jack Dempsey when he was three: “The miracle of seeing something beginning to look like something!” On the GI bill after the war he studied academic painting and drawing. He thought this type of art didn’t feel right, once he’d learned it, but he wasn’t sure what else there was. He was already married with a baby. They lived a hellish life with no money, everything going wrong, and him stumbling from idea to idea, none working. They went to Paris and he thought he should try to get back to basics, see if there was still the miracle child within. (“When I hear that expression I think how I would like to strangle that child! But when it’s your own of course you feel differently!”)

So he put out lumps of paint on a plank, set up canvases and blindfolded himself, and then made marks at random. When he looked he saw daubs of paint. They looked fresh. After he’d looked at them for a few days he thought they looked more like art. Then he was off in hell again, sinking into nightmarish violent fantasies. He dreamed of killing his stepfather and his stepbrothers. He wanted to get away, to explode, to die. He started copying violent obscene graffiti from Paris urinals, putting them in his paintings. He went a bit surreal. He met some of the Cobra artists who offered him a show only because (he thought) he was American and he might have some money.

Then he went back to New York and started painting thick, with the surfaces built up with plaster, no colour, simple figures, trying to get away from surrealism. He went round the Tenth Street dealers who were all showing pseudo-de Koonings. “Go away!” the dealers said. Then he did his exotic false identity act, which succeeded and at last, “Ass backwards!” as he says now, half proud, half puzzled—he became an abstract painter. Instead of thick he painted thin, soaking the canvas, making simple round shapes with very few colours, getting the basic circular shapes from a photo of breasts. He got more and more successful, met Noland and Caro and other artists, and after a while invented the spray technique, which made him even more known. The heavy industrial spray machines shot him around the studio a bit at first but then he got the hang of them and was even able to use two at a time, “Like the Westerns—two-gun!”

Spray painting came as an idea during a visit to Anthony Caro’s studio with some students. Caro said he was interested in weight and materiality, in density, and Olitski suddenly realised he was interested in the opposite. He would like it if he could do a painting where colour just seemed to hang in the air like a light spray. The thought kept him awake that night and the next day he went to the shop or the factory or whatever and bought the machinery. When he first used it he had to run out of the studio and vomit because of the fumes. Then after becoming the famous spray painter he painted thick again.

This was his path of art now—going from one way of treating materials to another, looking for what the materials would do, mixing up techniques—thick gel, fine sprays, empty surfaces, busy ones, high colour, muted colour. When we look at his paintings now we see just the materials and the surfaces and we don't know about all his interesting back-story. And actually it’s right that we don’t. It’s only part of human amusement to hear it, after all. Whereas the paintings are part of seriousness—playful as they are, right up to his very recent ones, painted in his late 70s, with their gaudy iridescent surfaces and exploding globs of matter, and their inventive, energetic, free mark-making.

After I saw him in New York I went round a show of some of these new paintings in London. I told myself every surface had been enjoyed and the enjoyment was infectious. And it’s true; it was enjoyment I was getting. I liked the way the porous texture of a bit of gel or moulding paste mimicked the open weave of a part of the canvas nearby which had very little paint or medium on it. There were great pulsating excitements of surface and then little supporting or complicating or enriching minor pleasures—colour erupting from underneath, say, next to a big mound of plasticky matter. Some of the colour was loud, some muted. A lot of the colours seemed to have been mixed-up with some deliberation as if there was some unifying colour-effect end in mind. But the drama was more about separations and differences—things hanging together because of a playful, easeful way with rhythm that Olitski appears to have as a natural talent.

I tried thinking, What defines this art? Why should it be thought of as good? If it had been Kiki Smith, I would know. The body! Or Robert Smithson—challenging the frameworks that artists are forced to exist within! Controlling your own production! But it was Olitski, so it was only the paintings‚ relationship to the great masterpieces of American art. Er, but why do we prefer the great masterpieces and not Olitski? Well maybe those are the breaks! You have to accept he has made a little culture of himself within another already well-defined culture. It’s a narrow frame of reference but a serious one—art history.

What are the virtues of this painting? A sort of fusion of differences, making a taut relationship, one that you can feel to be lively. You could believe this might be a good thing to be interested in. Compared to Jackson Pollock, Olitski presents a less-is-more argument. The superfluity in Pollock, Olitski’s pictures‚ propose, is a great nest of paint—Pollock’s excitement. With Olitski, the excitement is in saying there can be a surface tension with something much more pared-down, merely a sheen even.

You have to see his present work in relation to his past work. Why not? It’s not such an effort. You can look it up in books. In New York, I asked him what he thought the absolutely main unchanging thing was for him. “The underlying structure,” he answered. “That’s where the vision is.” He said he got inspiration from the Old Masters, El Greco, Rembrandt, Claude Lorraine. Well, all right then.

If it’s structure, where did he get his ideas about colour from? He said he didn’t have any, he just made it up. He’d think: “I need a green here, the greenest green.” Then he said, “I’ll think where it is in the studio. I’ll go and get it And then I’ll come back with some violet.” He says he’s tried looking at academic treatises on colour but he never gets anything from them. He can just about remember the order of the colour-wheel.

Of course it’s funny for anyone familiar with the critical zombie-rhetoric of the 60s to hear this, because they will know Olitski’s official role was to be a great colourist. It’s the main reason he’s not discussed any more, because colour is out. I will be glad when it comes back personally because it’s a good part of life. But although I can see that, clearly, Olitski still has an interest in the way the painting relates to the edge, and that’s one of the things he means by structure (I imagine), I don’t see a particular interest in colour. I see the way a painting will seem to be made of exploding blobs. That’s a compositional interest, not a colour interest. Anyway, his paintings look good. He’s a great master of surfaces. It’s wrong for people to think an interest in surfaces is only superficial; they’re one of the things painting can be about.

Jules Olitski’s new paintings are at Bernard Jacobson’s Gallery, London, until 13 November

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