“Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form,” Theodor Adorno wrote in a 1937 meditation, “Late Style in Beethoven.” He might just as well have been describing the paintings created by Jules Olitski between 2000 and his death in 2007, the closing chapter of his long artistic career and the subject of the current exhibition at the Sam & Adele Golden Gallery. Olitski was an exceptionally prolific artist who worked through a range of disparate styles, often alternating between austerity and excess. Masses of material, to use Adorno’s phrase, appeared again and again in Olitski’s work, first in his spackled “Matter” paintings of the late 1950s, again in the painterly works of the mid-1970s and early ’80s, finally in the shimmering, inches-thick surfaces of the early ’90s “Mitt” pictures. In his late paintings, elements that had appeared through all these styles—ethereal color atmospheres, densely textured paint surfaces, lines scrawled around the picture’s edges—return amplified and exaggerated, set free.
The Fifth Visit (2006) is a concentrated presentation of each of those earlier elements. In this work and throughout the late paintings, the flat circles of Olitski’s ’60s “Core” pictures are transfigured into swirls of dense impasto. Near the center of the The Fifth Visit, a large whirling orb seems to set the entire painting in motion, its energy rippling through the billowing colors in the background, while a bold yellow line clumsily frames the perimeter. The painting conjoins primordial vision with gross materiality: an unresolved tension, Adorno tells us, common to late period works. In one of the earliest pictures included in the exhibition, Moses Path: Crimson and Orange (2001), crusty orbs float atop a molten ground of fluidly interpenetrating colors ranging from metallic silver to flaming yellow-orange. Cracked and fissured as if by organic expansion, the surface seems to have erupted into being. And this is among the most harmonious pictures in the show.
The twenty-one paintings that line the walls of the SAGG are, with a couple exceptions, small or medium-scaled, and, instead of a chronological presentation, curator Jim Walsh has placed works in groupings that highlight both common and disjunctive qualities. Pairings like Romance Touch, White and Green (2002), a twenty-one inch square, next to the much larger Temptation: Green (2002) show how effectively Olitski could create expansive, outsize pictorial effects even at a small scale. Before embarking on these paintings, Olitski had spent five years or so working on unabashedly romantic landscapes in pastel, and residual features of those renderings of dusk and dawn appear in the late works. In Embraced: Pale Blue and Orange (2005), for example, the pale blue orb at the top of the picture seems to cast a light that illuminates the rest of the painting. The background colors, though not naturalistic, are blended subtly as in the earlier landscapes, with little trace of the artist’s hand. A clue as to how he achieved this effect is found on a wall of archival materials, where a photograph shows the elderly Olitski sitting in his studio, grinning, with a paint spattered leaf blower on his lap.
These are challenging paintings: brash, aggressive, uncompromising. Olitski, always a mischievous artist, seemed intent on outdoing himself. In a late interview, he said that one had to be willing to take risks in painting. To risk creating the world’s most beautiful painting, one had to be prepared to end up with the world’s ugliest painting. While working on these late paintings, Olitski seemed quite ready to risk erring on the side of the latter. The tempestuous Wanderings: Bilbao, Orange, Yellow and Blue (2004) features an unruly lava-like pool of yellow and bright red that threatens to consume the surface, and the orbs have melted into puddles. Adorno is again instructive here: “Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, [late works] do not surrender themselves to mere delectation,” he writes. “They lack all the harmony [of] the classicist aesthetic.”
Like the other Color Field painters who emerged in the 1960s, the work that Olitski created during that heady decade remains most well-known today. Unlike those painters, the appearance of Olitski’s work often changed dramatically after the 1960s and continually from year to year, changes facilitated, as Walsh observes in his catalogue essay, by the artist’s ongoing experimentation with newly developed paints, gels, polymers, and mediums. Olitski’s was a particularly robust late style. His paintings from the 2000s are both the apotheosis of a lifetime in art and a voyage into new pictorial territory.