WHILE OTHERS SLEEP, NEW HAMPSHIRE ARTIST JULES OLITSKI TOILS THROUGH THE NIGHT TO CREATE THE LUMINOUS PAINTINGS THAT HAVE EARNED HIM INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
TEXT BY LOUIS POSTEL |
The light in the window of artist Jules Olitski’s studio shines through another night on this Lake Winnipesaukee island, just as his star burns bright among the hosts of great American abstract expressionists. | Collectors looking for a sound investment and homeowners seeking powerful color compositions might consider this man’s work.
His luminous paintings may turn out to be a steal compared with similar-size canvases by Helen Frankenthaler or Robert Motherwell. Major auctioneers’ hammers have been coming down only sporadically for Olitski paintings. Recently, Christie’s sold an 88-by-69 inch acrylic for $50,000, and another that he painted during the same early 1960s period brought a paltry $16,000. This may soon change, as Olitski wins the recognition many believe he deserves.
There’s more than a little irony in this, because it was the art king-maker himself, the critic Clement Greenberg, who thought Olitski was the best of the best, but even Greenberg couldn’t ensure Olitski’s mass appeal.
According to William Rubin, curator emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, in a 1994 interview in The Art Newspaper with Jason Edward Kaufman, Greenberg failed despite his best efforts to put Olitski over the top, having succeeded with so many others, such as Pollock, Smith an DeKooning.
“Still,” Rubin said. “when it came to the next generation it was inevitable that [Greenberg] would be looked to for signs. But then the painters he validated had nothing like the success of painters he didn’t support, such as Jasper Johns or Frank Stella. Finally, Pop Art, which he found anathema, had a much bigger success than the people who Clem was saying were good. For example, I’ve never known Jules Olitski to have outstanding success, yet, at one time [Greenberg] thought that Jules was the best painter in the world.”
And, in fact, Olitski has soloed t all the major northeastern stops: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.
Earlier this year, his show at a trendy private museum in Miami was big draw. Painter and critic Franklin Einspruch wrote of that show, “Jules Olitski: Six Decades’ at the Goldman Warehouse is the best show on display in Miami right now. It reminds me of my tai chi teacher’s martial arts skills: no frills, no nonsense, consummate mastery, and God help you if you get in the way. Olitski has gotten better with age –- and sixty years is a long time to get better.”
Olitski is not only to consummate master Einspruch describes but is also supremely happy, celebrating his thirtieth year with his wife, Kristina. The couple divide their time among homes in New Hampshire, the Florida Keys and New York City.
Life has not always been so bright for this maestro of ethereal sprays and limpid, rainbow-like stains. In fact, Olitski, who has known dark times, is rarely awake during the daylight hours.
Olitski’s stepfather beat him mercilessly, tearing up any of the boys’ drawings he found. So the young artist hid in a bathroom, drawing throughout the night and alert to changes in the timbre of the snores of his stepfather and stepbrothers. Should they show signs of awaking, he would slip into bed to avoid their wrath. These nocturnal work hours endure to this day.
The artist has moved far beyond those troubled boyhood times, but the New Hampshire island he lives on has parallels to his homeland. “Once my mother came to visit me here on the island, and she remarked that it looked exactly like the area she’d left in Russia, “ he says.
Despite Olitski’s apprehension she was sure that the island looked like a good place to pick with mushrooms. Eventually, Olitski and his wife became experts at recognizing the difference between the island’s edible and poisonous chanterelles and boletus. He now makes what he claims is a delicious re-creation of his mother’s barley soup, sharing it with friends and neighbors, who treasure the master’s presence and are fiercely protective of his privacy.
“Sometime people come out to the island and ask, “Where does the artist live?” My neighbor always answer politely and always give the wrong directions,” Olitski says. “Some may still be wandering around out there. Or eaten by bears, who knows?”
Although dropping in for tea with Kristina and Jules Olitski may not be a good idea, checking out the market for his work would be a welcome move. Consider the$16,000 to $50,000 spread of auction prices for Olitski’s work, compare it with Sotheby’s sale this year of a Frankenthaler for $150,000, and the opportunity is obvious.
EDITOR’S NOTE The artist is represented by Knoedler and company, New York, New York. (212) 794-0550, www.knoedlergallery.com
(Page 78 NEW ENGLAND HOME SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2005)
Sublime color characterizes Olitski’s work, from his early color field pieces to more recent semi-representational paintings. TOP: Hot Rhythm (1965), acrylic on canvas, 44” x 91” BOTTOM: Tut Yellow (1965), acrylic on canvas, 106” x 96”.
(Page 80 NEW ENGLAND HOME SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2005)
Jules Olitski often blurs his shapes and edges with spray guns or with one of his favorite tools, this leaf blower, which he keeps on hand in his New Hampshire studio.
(Page 82 NEW ENGLAND HOME SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2005)
Given Olitski’s late-night hours, perhaps these large circles represent waxing moons over the artist’s beloved lake. Their lofty serenity is in marked contrast to the billowing, lightning-lit turbulence found on earth. TOP: Island Surge (2002), watercolor, gouache and acrylic on rag paper; 10” x 14” BOTTOM: Embraced: Purple (2005), acrylic on canvas ; 34” x 24”