Monday, July 16, 2012

Jules Olitski: For Your Eyes Only

Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski has traveled to the Toledo Museum of Art from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City. What a remarkable show it is; I'm patting myself on the back for having gone out of my way to see it. I've known next to nothing about Olitiski, a color field painter during the era of abstract expressionism. What I've known about him is what I've known of many artists—that is, what I've learned through reference materials after hearing his name mentioned in connection with similar (color field) painters— Helen Frankenthaler, or Kenneth Noland; Mark Rothko or Morris Louis. This group is not associated by "look" as much as by their individual preoccupations with linked color and emotion. Each found a way to let color both define and express the content of their work.

Revelation is divided into chronological sections that demonstrate the developing complexity of Olitiski's ideas and canvases. The stain paintings of 1960-'64 are represented by a press image of Purple Golubchik 2. The excellent small gallery guide that accompanies the show explains that "golubchik" (Oliktski was born in Russia) is "not only a kindly form of address, but also a humorous one" often translated as "sweetheart." 

I am offering this image to my readers in the smallest and the largest sizes possible on this blog platform. The point I hope to make is that the scale of the photographs makes little difference in our perception or appreciation of what we call "the artwork." Does the larger size offer information that the smaller version does not?
Jules Olitski, Purple Golubchik, 1962; Magna acrylic on canvas, 132 1/4 x 90 1/4 inches;
Private Collection, 
Image: ©Jules Olitski Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York; photo: Michael Cullen
Close observation of the larger image will show that the edges of the red field are blurred along the inner and outer edges. Without comparison to the smaller version, would we note this at all? If we decided that it was significant, would we identify it as a flaw or event in the photography, in the printing of the photograph, or something in the painting itself? Asking  these questions at all supposes that we looked with the searching attention we might expend on the examination of a real artwork. Do we expect to learn from the photograph the things we would learn from looking at the painting itself?

But why ask any questions of a tiny photograph of Olitski's painting? The dimensions of Purple Golubchik are in fact slightly over eleven by seven feet—which is small in the painter's oeuvre. The painting is only in the most superficial way like this image. This photograph is to the painting what a sketchbook note would be: It jogs the memory; it in no way represents the features that attract they eye of a viewer in the gallery. The camera, rather than revealing, obscures the essence of the painting.

Jules Olitski, One Time, 1964
acrylic on canvas, 82 x 69 1/4 in.
Olitski Family Estate, Vermont Warehouse Collection,
 Jacksonville, Vermont
In the gallery, we choose our spatial relationship to a work. Olitski's paintings—as the works of the color field artists in general tend to be—are enormous; they are vast; they can loom like clouds bearing divine messages. Purple Golubchik,  from his early stain paintings, was made by applying acrylic paint directly to unprimed canvas so that the color bled directly into the raw fabric instead of sitting on top of it (as it would have had the canvas been covered with gesso or otherwise primed). 

This yielding of management over the details of application meant loss of control of both edges and evenness of color absorption. Where we see in the photograph bold, uniform areas of red, green, and blue, we see in the live painting colored areas covered much less consistently. Some portions have received less pigment, others an extra swipe, so there is variety where the photo shows only monolithic sameness. And, as there is tension about the way the blue circle pushily relates to the exterior lines of the canvas, the bleeding of color at edges creates anxiety about the interrelation of the forms contained within the circle: Will they eventually touch? Is this about separation, or about creeping tendency to blend? Will the forms metamorphose, or lose their integrity if they continue to expand? Will their edges fade away and the color run out?

In the presence of Purple Golubchik, we find our interest occupied by a variety of stories, and they occupy us in different degrees depending on our proximity to or distance from the painting. We may appreciate it from across the room as a colossal drama of form and color; but from a foot away, any two-by-two-foot swathe is a microcosm of small, quiet actions. As pictured, it's easy to understand the whole as a draft for a Marimekko fabric print. In order to experience its life with the subtlety it actually possesses, you simply have to be in front of it. There is no compromise for the viewer's presence.

Photography can do a lot of things, but it doesn't convey scale without comparison. And even were there to be a human pictured beside an Olitski painting, that would do nothing to mitigate the inevitable massing of colors that the eye can and does isolate in person. Painters paint for eyes, not cameras. Olitski's stain paintings (Purple Golubchik, One Time) defy reproduction. To the extent that we experience them through photographic condensations, there is, simply, less and less to see. All the telling skips, pauses, and blanks that are central presences get eliminated in the compacting process.

Olitski's second series of  work is spray paintings from 1965 through 1970. Again, a photograph offers a certain kind of information, but little of what the painting offers.
Patutsky in Paradise, 1966; acrylic on canvas, 115 x 161 inches; Collection of Art Gallery of Ontario, Purchase, 1982;
Image: ©Jules Olitski Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York
Patutsky in Paradise (the name is a childhood term of endearment for the painter) hangs in a way that makes a heavenly prospect conceivable. It is conceivable because the canvas, at nine-and-a-half-feet high and thirteen-and-a-half feet wide, allows the viewer to imagine paradise not simply as a blur of idea, but as a prospect with details. The wall of radiance that shimmers in this photographic image feels literally heavenly in person when the average-sized viewer stands before it in the gallery. The colors do convey—or they draw out a preexisting state of—exaltation. They are light (pastel as opposed to shaded) and they glow with light. But they are not light in the sense of weightless. 

Jules Olitski, Exact Origins, 1966
acrylic on canvas, 110 x 85 in., spray painted
Courtesy of Leslie Feely Fine Art, New York
Patutsky's canvas is heavy with layer upon layer of sprayed paint. Standing next to the painting itself, one does not at all experience a wall of pure color, but rather a minutely dappled surface upon which the evidence of several carefully integrated sprays of color lie discrete and plain—almost as if they could be neatly disassembled for a color separation. The surface is not even but densely textured, like beach sand after a rainstorm, heavy and wet in look. So, stand across the room, and Patutsky in Paradise is an ethereal cloud of colors rising out of its framing rainbow beaker (which is failing, and emitting cloudlets on the left side). But come close, and the same painting has impressive weight and depth. In fact it's hard to imagine the whole thing when you're close enough that you can only see a fragment: How could something with all this mass be the same work you just saw floating, from across the room?

From Olitski's final era of work, when he was in his late seventies, came the series called, "With Love and Disregard." Not enough can be said about the beauty, richness, and the impact that these paintings have on the viewer. They are not as monumental in size as the spray paintings, but, then, the surfaces do well to contain the seething motion, the multiple layers of paint that vie for ascendency, the contrast of super-saturated color with cosmically-black backgrounds. 
Jules Olitski, With Love and Disregard: Rapture, 2002; acrylic on canvas, 68 x 92 inches; Private Collection
 Image: ©Jules Olitski Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York; photo: Michael Cullen
Rapture, painted when Olitski was 78, is almost unnervingly intense: it feels ecstatic with age, with all the tumult, beauty, and dread the concept of rapture holds. Once more, he presents us with a drama of form and formlessness, one that we intuitively grasp and interpret.The senses of formation, of efflorescence and climax are powerful, driven by shapes and colors. And again, what we cannot see in this photograph powers the painting from even more deeply, beneath the surface motion and tension. The great cracks we see in the black around the fiery form and again in the white are the grossest manifestations of cracks that break the crusty surface all over the painting, giving way to roiling wells of color. These passages of various sizes compare to the fine patterns on marbled paper, to the pocked bubbling of asphalt, or the crazed crust of a creek bed in drought. Unless a dedicated observer with a good camera were allowed to persist, they remain invisible to all but the viewer who stands in the painting's considerable force field.

Art writing—certainly as I practice it—depends on photography. One reason I took to blogging after writing for print was that I could avail myself of as many images as I could get my hands on. If I wish to discuss visual art, images are the secondary documents that help me make my case. They can demonstrate what I'm talking about. Short of a field trip, photos are the best I can do to show, share, and start a conversation.

Most of the time, I act as if this writing from photographs posed me none of the problems it does. But seeing Olitski's moving Revelations show puts me achingly in mind of what readers surely take for granted in my (or in anyone's) art reviews: that photos represent a work by showing what there is to see. 

But photographs never show the art that you examine with your own two eyes. They never show any artworks that I write about however warmly. At best, photos deliver significant information and lifelike color. At worst, they are these pictures of Olitski's paintings, so different in scale that they communicate almost nothing about the artist's practice. These high-quality shots  represent only single features of Olitski's divinely complex work. Because of these, we can identify paintings he made, but our awareness of his work is reduced to that first glance, the kind that will allow us to make a value judgment or a decision on whether or not to visit a show of his work. It gives us the Classics Comics Jules Olitski. But color field work is, I emphasize, unusually problematic.
It's not the fault of photography that its products aren't truthful. And we should praise any particular photographer who strives anyway to document art accurately. It is very demanding work. When I post my own photos on this blog, it is inevitably with a heavy heart: I see vividly in my head the details that defied my camera from every angle and lighting. I have to discard "satisfying" images. If I look at an image and can't see what's missing, then I've forgotten why I needed that shot in the first place.

The history of art is founded on our acquaintance with the ghosts of great works. When we see the originals in collections, we may think that the artists blundered or falsified by adding all sorts of things that we never saw in Janson's History of Art. Whose authority is this, after all? Art's already been fixed forever in the photographs that we know from text books and slide collections.

I offer no solution, only a reminder of how profoundly proximate art images are. We need them nevertheless.

I am deeply grateful to the providers of images when I review shows that have, like Revelations, been assembled from a variety of public and private collections. All the contributors have their own parameters controlling the taking and the distribution of photographs of their work. The show organizers may release to the press only what crosses no boundaries in the whole field of permissions and restrictions. The images I post are the results of much work, courtesy, and generosity.

There are always more and better photographs that I want to use in my reviews.

But the most exquisitely photographed details of any work can never reveal what's important.  What's important is and will always be the contact between an artwork and a particular viewer's eyes; that's where there's life because that's where there's an experience. No camera will ever focus like a viewer's vision, because that sort of sight is an experience, and that comes, like the artists's, from inside.

All photographs are courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.

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