Jules Olitski

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Olitski Speaking At Harvard, 1977

Jules Olitski died at 84 on February 4, 2007.  Shortly thereafter, a memorial for him was held at The Metropolitan Museum.  It was great to see so many old friends, veterans in the struggle for modernist painting.  It was a very talented group of people, and almost all of the speakers spoke well.  Jules inspired each to be their best.  Audrey Mirvish was perhaps the most heartfelt, Larry Poons the most lyrical.

The point that struck me most was Andrew Hudson’s recollection that David Smith, the great sculptor of the first generation, had singled out Jules as the one who would “keep things going”.  In other words, Smith was saying that Jules was a leader of the next generation.  He was the most grounded one of his best contemporary competitors:  Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro, Helen Frankenthaler, Jack Bush, Larry Poons, and Friedel Dzubas.  This certainly corresponds to my experience.  Only Jules had that titanic, inner steadiness which was one with his utter belief in himself as an artist.

Many of the speakers went on about Jules’ color but, in truth, Jules was somewhat limited as a colorist, as Clem Greenberg pointed out many years ago.  Jules was, however, the non plus ultra of chiaroscuro, tonalism, and pictorial refinement.  And like Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Morris Louis, Jules, at least for most of his career, sought the sublime, the majestic, the grand.  This always entails a certain impersonality and distance.  Jules spent the last 30+ years of his life withdrawn from the art world, living in inaccessible locations in the Florida Keys and New Hampshire.  He once said that, in his art, he was “turning his back on the viewer”.

For me, Jules was a towering figure even before I met him in 1967.  I had seen a group of commanding, tall, spray pictures at the Venice Biennale which simply blew me away.  They went beyond the prevailing stained color fields of Noland, Frankenthaler, Dzubas, Bush, Poons and Olitski himself, which were the leading modernist mode of that moment.  The surface had a new tactility and enfolded its own illusion as Clement Greenberg pointed out in the Biennale catalogue.  It also signaled a return to the painterly and away from the sharp edges of stained, Color Field painting.  These pictures had a whole new feeling and, for me, automatically became the cutting edge of Pollock-type painting.  Olitski went on to dominate painting for the next 20 years or more.  (Indeed, for some, he still has had the last word.)  In the catalogue for Jules’ retrospective in 1973, I wrote that, “for the moment, Olitski is saving western painting.”  This over the top formulation does at least show how singular and dominant Jules’ painting was at that time, both for me, and for many others, especially painters, but also critics and collectors.

When I finally met Jules, I found him very good looking, with slow deliberate movements, and a somewhat sovereign manner.  His features were delicate, Asiatic, Jewish.  These features became more pronounced as he grew older.  His fingers were long and elegant.  I was always surprised that he wasn’t taller than he was.  He was also very charismatic, at least as far as I was concerned.

Shortly after I met Jules, he asked me to write the catalogue essay for a show of his polychrome sculptures held at the Metropolitan Museum in 1969.  He didn’t trust Henry Geldzahler, the initiator and curator of the show, to do the writing.  I was thrilled.  It was my first shot at writing art criticism, and I was very grateful to both Clem for recommending me, and Jules for giving me the opportunity.

After writing my piece I sent it to Clem and Jules.  Clem liked it and offered a few suggestions.  Jules, on the other hand, had a problem.  I was then teaching at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.  Jules called me and asked me to fly down to talk with him about my piece.  It turned out that Jules objected to my mentioning the name of Anthony Caro in my essay.  I had written that Tony had led the way in the early 60’s with his big, brightly painted, metal constructions that sprawled horizontally across the floor.  In his new sculptures, Jules had adopted these features.  I noted this, while also stressing that Jules’ sculptures were very different, and very original.  Nevertheless, Jules didn’t want me to mention Tony’s name at all.  And add to this, Tony had given Jules the materials, assistants, and use of a work place in St. Neots, England, to make the work!  How could a guy be such an amazing artist and also be so petty and competitive?  I was shocked.  Being young, high minded, and trained as a scholar, I was also appalled.  I spoke about it to Clem but he just shrugged and didn’t want to get involved.  In the end, I was far too excited by my opportunity, and far too afraid of Jules, to speak up, so I took Tony’s name out.  Later I realized how naïve I had been, and how egotistic and competitive I myself could be.  Also, as regards my essay, Jules did have a point.  Looking back, these were the most original abstract sculptures I have seen before or since.  (Among artists, only Larry Poons and Frank Stella have fully understood them.)  Moreover, when I wrote my book on Jules in 1981, he had no problem with me mentioning Caro when discussing these pieces.

Later in 1977 I did a show at the Boston Museum of Julesۥ subsequent, stacked,  monumental sculptures in Cor-ten and mild steel from the early 1970’s.  While not as amazing as the 1968 pieces, these were as powerful and original as any sculpture being done in those years, even those of Caro, who was the leading figure.  Caro was a full time sculptor.  Jules was a full time painter who tried to make ambitious sculpture whenever he had the opportunity.  Curiously, he never followed up on the outrageous, polychromed, 1968 pieces which were shown at the Met.

Almost all of Jules’ pre-1980 sculptures were reproduced in my 1981 monograph on him.  Here I just want to say a few things about his last two series which I am reproducing here.  These were inspired by driving on a highway behind a cement mixer sometime in the early 1990’s.  Shortly thereafter, Jules bought several old cement mixers and, over the next decade, created from them, two groups of three sculptures each:  first the “Cyclops”, then the “Titans”.  Both were completed by 2006.

The Cyclops (left to right): “Argos The Cyclops”, 102H x 111W x 90L, “Steropes The Cyclops”, 118H x 106W x 95L, “Brontes The Cyclops”, 108H x 86W x 96L

Installed At The Katzen Center in DC

The Titans (left to right): “Eos The Titan”, 80H x 69W x 70L, “Selene The Titan”, 98H x 82W x 87L, “Helios The Titan”, 53H x 72W x 96L

One can easily see how the shape of a cement mixer, with its rounded, swelling surfaces, would appeal to Jules.  And the vocabulary of these late works recall his earlier sculptures:  circular shapes, zig-zag, steel scribbles and integral bases that float the piece off the ground.  New are the thin rods which, at least in some instances, seem necessary for support and balance.

Most surprising to me is that each of these sculptures is painted a different, single color.  In this, they inevitably relate to Caro’s breakthrough, monochromatic sculptures of the 1960’s.  Here too, the optical adds to the sense of weightlessness and lift.

In the “Cyclops”, Jules turned the mixer on end with the round, squat portion below and the funnel shaped part pointing upward.  There is a strong sense of enclosed volume but without weight or mass.  Large holes are cut into the mixer, the “eye” of the Cyclops.  Expressively, the “Cyclops” are playful and funky.  I’ve only seen these late pieces in photographs but it looks as if the “Steropes Cyclops” is the most dynamic and in the round.  Almost ten feet high and painted a yellow/green, it shows a zig zag form winding around the outside creating a spiral staircase kind of form (one of Jules’ oft mentioned inspirations going back to the 1960’s). 

In two of the “Titans”, Jules turned the round part of the mixer upright and, in one, “Eos”, offers a transparency altogether new in his work.  As in painting, so in sculpture, Jules was innovating right to the end.

In my 1981 book on Jules, I laid out my view of his early development as a painter in great detail so I am not going to do that again here.  Suffice to note that he fell in love with Rembrandt’s paintings, which he saw at the 1939 World’s Fair, when he was 17, and decided to become an artist.  He went on to acquire a complete academic training in both painting and sculpture.  Then he became interested in modern painting and, after his military service, he went to Paris to study thanks to the G.I. Bill.  There he had an identity crisis and decided that he needed to overcome his academic training and immerse himself in the work of the European avant garde.  At one point he even painted blindfolded as a way to bypass his academic training and reach his inner self `a la surrealism.  His more specific influences were the CoBrA school, and Jean Dubuffet.  He was especially drawn to latter’s emphasis on heavily textured surfaces, something that was very prevalent in Europe at that time:  the so called “matter painting.”  This was evident in his first mature works, the “spackle paintings”, done between 1954-8, three years after his return to the U.S.  They are in neutrals, mostly greys and whites, with heavy surfaces very much along the lines of “matter painting”, but also recalling Rembrandt.  A group of these were shown at Knoedler Gallery a few years ago.  I hadn’t seen them in years.  They are certainly strong, confident, and sophisticated but not yet quite distinct enough to be A level.

Then, in 1958, Jules met Clem and, in 1959, members of the emerging, second wave of the Color Field school.  In response he abruptly changed styles.  Accepting the influence of Kenneth Noland’s “targets”, he began a series of pictures which showed thinned down, hard edge, concentric, elliptical forms with bright color.  But Jules didn’t want Noland’s geometry.  Instead he stressed biting, biomorphic drawing and off kilter, expansive compositions. Also Jules wanted more variety of surface than stained Color Field painting offered.  He tried a whole variety of paints but finally had to accept water soluble acrylic paint which made the illusion separable from the surface.  In my view it was then, in 1961, with these “Circle” or “Core pictures”, that Jules became a major figure side by side with Louis and Noland.

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“Purple Golebchick”, 1962, 132 1/4″ x 90 1/4″

As an artist type, Jules was a sculptor/draftsman like Picasso and Pollock, not a pure colorist like Noland and Bush.  His great contribution, beginning with the spray paintings, was the expansion of gradations within the middle value range:  a hyper refined and exaulted pictorialism.  But Jules was also a pure painter, a painter’s painter, a magician at handling the medium.  It was this double power, which was to make him such a huge artistic personality, the largest of his generation.  It also enabled him to hit upon the most direct approach to Color Field painting.

Jules’ basic concept was to take Pollock’s all-over openness and reimagine it as a purely painterly, color and light inflected “field”.   Pollock himself had already created something like this in some of his greatest masterworks, especially, “Lavender Mist” of 1950, where his lines dissolve into shimmering, breathing atmosphere and color.  Also a sculptor-draftsman type, but far more dedicated to line, Pollock couldn’t follow up on “Lavender Mist”.  From the point of view of line, “Lavender Mist” was “empty”.  Olitski’s insight was to grasp how this format opened the way to feature, as never before, surface, and purely painterly values:  color and tonal modulation.  Also, he discovered that line drawing and sharp contrast could be brought back at the edges, which would both unbalance and specify the whole.  This simple, yet brilliant conception yielded Jules almost 30 years of magnificent painting. 

The new emphasis on surface, which his 1965 spray paintings evinced, was also something that played to Jules strength and, as his painting developed, in the late 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, his surfaces became thicker, more viscous.  He was able to devise Old Master-like glazing, scumbling and impasto but with acrylics instead of oils.  Already in the late 60’s, he began adding acrylic gel to vary the opacity and transparency of the surface.  As he went on, he used all manner of application:  his hands, squeegees, rollers, brooms, mops, a big mitten as well as different types of spray guns and more.  Also he added to his repertoire the many new kinds of acrylic gels and paints which became available, especially in the 1980’s.  Most outrageous in this respect were his paintings on mirrored plexiglass some of which were brilliant.  I remember seeing a show of them in March of 1987, at Gallery One in Toronto which were as “out there” as his 1969 sculptures.  On the other hand, there were times, especially in the 1970’s, when Jule’s pictures and sculptures became too minimal, too “empty”.  Also, after the 1970’s, Jules pretty much stopped doing full-out, heroic statements, (tall and long), like those he had done in the late 60’s and 70’s, e.g. “Instant Loveland”, 1968, 10′ x 21′ “Third Indomitable”, 1970, 7′ x 18′.  Of course, Jules always had a kind of Old Master nobility and grandeur that didn’t require size.  Still, this downsizing had most to do with practicalities.  They were hard to sell and store.  On the other hand, there were some truly great masterworks every single year, year after year.  Toward the end of the 80’s came the “Mitt” pictures.  In most of his all-over pictures, Jules eschewed gesture except at the margins, the main exception being some pictures he did in 1975 where the vertical strokes reminded E.A. Carmine of analytic cubism.  The “Mitt” pictures show vigorous, repeating gestures but the surface which carries them seems almost, but not quite, detached from an even more dynamic, richer, chromatic space deep within.  These pictures are the culmination of Jules’ long, all-over phase.

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“Shira”, 1990, 65 1/2″ x 79 1/2″

In 1973, I had the privilege to organize a big retrospective of Jules’ work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  It later travelled to the Albright Knox in Buffalo and the Whitney Museum in New York.  The show had a cold reception in New York which had already embraced conceptualism and post modernism in its many forms:  Pop, Minimalism, Earth Art et al.  Jules’ critics called him too tasteful, too pretty, or merely sensual, but also, paradoxically, too intellectual and “sectarian” (read Greenbergian).  The old guard modernists rejected the show too; the critics Harold Rosenberg in the “New Yorker”, Robert Hughes in “Time”, and Hilton Kramer in the “New York Times”.  After that, Jules work was marginalized.  In 1981 when I wrote my book about him, there were no reviews.  The book has been out of print for many years and no book has been done since.  Here is another indicator of how much Olitski went out of fashion.  Some years ago an interview with Jules in the “Art Newspaper” was titled “What Is It Like To Be Forgotten?”

In the 70’s, I was often with Jules in Bennington or in his studio in New York.  I was usually, but not always, with Clem.  Clem would make some comment about the pictures or sculptures, and then, the next time I went, Jules would have creatively misinterpreted what Clem meant.  It was fun and very instructive to watch.  I also remember Clem and I culling out the pictures from which Bill Rubin, then Director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the M.O.M.A., was to pick out one for the museum’s collection.  Clem and Jules didn’t trust Bill’s eye anymore than they had trusted Henry Geldzahler’s.

Clem and Jules would sit for hours talking and drinking.  Clem became more and more surly and aggressive, while Jules simply slowed down without the slightest change of personality.  I was amazed at how much the two could put away.  The conversation was about art and life and was usually great.  When I first met Clem, he often made fun of Jules, and spoke of him as being not very bright.  He also said “today, great painting is being done by baboons” and the like.  But as time went on, they seemed closer and closer.  In the end they were like brothers.

Jules did develop a serious drinking problem and the failing of his liver finally got him to quit.  I remember every time he came to Boston for a show, and he had to deal with a lot of people, he fell off the wagon.  He finally gained control by joining AA.  I visited Jules sometimes at his home in Islamorada in the Florida Keys.  One night I accompanied him to an AA meeting.  It was great to see Jules have such warm fellowship with so many people.  He was totally relaxed.  It was art world people who made him nervous.

Jules was great to look at art with, as I did when he came to the museums where I worked in Boston and Fort Lauderdale.  We even met up once in Paris and went to the Museé d’Orsay together.  Like Clem, he always had unexpected reactions.  He was also very to the point when talking about art, even more than Clem was.

After Jules moved to New Hampshire, I would make day trips or go for the weekend.  Often Clem would be there too, as well as the painter, Lucy Baker, and the collectors Arthur and Marny Solomon.  Jules had a relaxed way about him and great personal warmth.  Kristina, his wife, had these same qualities and my visits there are among my most luminous memories.

Surprisingly, Jules also had a bawdy and scatological sense of humor and he loved to tell tall tales.  He once wrote a short novel.  The leading characters were based on Clem and Ken Noland.  Jules had them organizing sexual escapades in Clem’s apartment and the piece was full of lewd details.  Jules portrayed himself as a pure innocent, dumbfounded by the goings on.  Jules read this aloud to Judy Cabot and myself on a Sunday afternoon in his New York studio.  His then girlfriend, Dawn Andrews, was there too.  Jules meant it to be funny but it just seemed silly to me.  Again Jules had amazed and disappointed me, but I didn’t say that, and went along with the gags.  Later Jules worked up the nerve to let Clem read the manuscript.  Clem told him that if he published it, he would never speak to him again.  Clem called it “the worst kind of Jewish humor”.  Many years later, I asked Jules about the piece.  He said that he still had it and worked on it from time to time.  It never appeared.

In the early 1980’s, I became excited by a group of younger painters who I felt had something new to say.  This was the group which came to be called, the “New New” painters.  To me it was a relief after the 20 year domination of painting by Olitski.  It is true that other good painters did come along after 1966, most notably Larry Poons with his “cascade” pictures beginning in 1971, but also Peter Bradley, Sandi Slone, Darryl Hughto, and Susan Roth.  But all of them seemed superseded by Jules.  The New New were different.  They were quicker to jump on the rapidly expanding, new possibilities made available by the new acrylic paints and gels.  And they brought in a new sensibility:  punk, “tacky”, glitzy, glossy and psychedelic.  (All were children of the 1960’s.)  Their pictures had an all-out, go for broke expressionism, the very opposite of Jules’ high impassiveness and lofty hyperrefinement.  Later Jules himself would embrace this same direction especially after 1995, partly under their pressure.  I wrote about these painters in my “Moffett’s Artletter”, which I published in the late 1980’s, and then again in a 1992 book, “New New Painting”.  I always made a point of how hugely influenced the “New New” were by Jules’ painting and that of the other Color Field painters.  Nonetheless, I received angry letters from Walter Darby Bannard and Larry Poons.  Clem wasn’t very keen on my having my own take on things either and, as I have already written, we saw less and less of each other after I began “Moffett’s Artletter”.  Then I heard that he was going around saying that I was “temporarily insane”.  I was especially irked when Jules gleefully repeated, parrot-like, this to me on several occasions.  Of course Jules had become used to being the chosen one and the last word, so the New New didn’t fit into his personal narrative.  Nor did it fit into Clem’s.  It was as if they saw themselves walking off together arm in arm into the sunset, end of story.

Jules did come to a viewing I organized for some of the New New in 1990, at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art.  I had also included later works by the Color Field founders: Poons, Noland, Bannard along with Jules.  Jules was humorless and tight, but did allow that he liked the work of Steve Brent best.  Later he reported to Clem that the New New “weren’t anything to worry about” (per Clem).  There were no works by Lucy Baker in the Fort Lauderdale viewing, but Jules had visited Lucy’s studio once in the mid 80’s.  On that occasion he was very complimentary calling one of her twenty foot pictures “major”.   Furthermore, he was especially taken by her works on plexi and especially mirrored plexi which she was doing at the time.  Shortly thereafter, Jules began doing plexi and mirrored plexi pieces himself.  These pictures would be right at home in any New New show.  But Jules didn’t stay with the plexi (Clem didn’t like them.)  Also Jules last pictures, which he started around 2000, the “Orbs”, bear an unmistakable similarity to the big pictures he had seen in Lucy’s studio.  Of course these “Orbs” also relate to Jules’ own landscapes and his Circle paintings of the early 1960’s, as well as to Gottlieb and, further back still, to Miro.  But they are closest of all to Lucy’s pictures with their blobs of aggressive texture.

As Jules’ pictures became more expressionistic, more all out, even raw and crude, i.e. more New New,  the more negative he became about them, even though he had not seen any more of their work.  I couldn’t even joke about it without him getting angry.  It reminded me of Titian throwing Tintoretto out of his studio for showing too much originality, or Picasso mocking Pollock.

Jules was very generous in giving a huge canvas to Wellesley College in my honor, when I worked there.  It was titled “Green Hands” (1969, 8’9″x17′) and unique in Jules’ work in featuring a very bright, emerald green.  When I was Curator of Contemporary Art in Boston, I acquired two big pictures for the collection, one was the great “Tin Lizzy Green” (1964, 9’7″x5’8″).

Sometime in the middle 90’s, when I was the Director of the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I met up with Jules at an event at Harvard University.  In conversation Jules spontaneously offered to give one of his “Mitt” pictures to the museum.  We were in debt and without any acquisition funds.  I was thrilled, but when I didn’t get back to him in the next few days, he called me and angrily withdrew his offer.  I had been very busy with other issues, after all I was running a good size museum (64,000 square feet) with 50 employees and a three million dollar budget.  But Jules immediately felt neglected and took offense.  I have no doubt that it was my advocacy of New New which was at the heart of it.  In any event, I pointed out to Jules that I had already acquired, through gift, four of his earlier works for the museum.  I hadn’t neglected him after all, and he relented and gave the museum a wonderful piece.  Shortly after I left Florida and moved back to Stamford, Connecticut  in 1998, I drove up to Vermont to Jules’ warehouse with several of the New New painters Lucy Baker, Steven Brent, Irene Neal, and Bruce Piermarini.  Thanks to Jules’ daughter, Lauren, we were able to review Jules’ very large inventory.  It took us a whole day.  Everybody was awed by the experience.  While we were there, Jules called, and we told him how amazed we all were.

Back in Stamford, I was able to convert my basement into a small gallery to show my own collection, which contains mostly pictures by the Color Field and New New painters.  But I lacked a great Olitski canvas.  I was complaining one day to Lucy Baker that Jules had never given me a good sized canvas, although he had given many to Clem.  Lucy thought that I deserved one and that if I didn’t ask, she would.  I said “Okay” although I didn’t believe she would actually do it (but I did want her to).  Sure enough she did, and it made Jules angry.  Meanwhile Lucy never said anything to me about her call and I didn’t bring it up.  As always, I continued to have a very good relationship with Jules, talking to him often on the phone and seeing him in New York and South Florida.  In 1997, when I married Cynthia, my third wife, Kristina sent us a beautiful quilt that she had made.

In October of 2002, I was having lunch with Andre Emmerich, the dealer, and he told me about the speech he was preparing for Jules’ 80th birthday party.  He assumed I was going.  But I hadn’t been invited!  I was shocked and very hurt.  It ate away at me that after all the years of our friendship, and my championing his work, he would leave me out.  Eventually I brought it up with him and he gave me a bullshit answer about there “not being enough space”.  I let him know that I thought his excuse was lame.  He then sent me a short note saying basically that no one owes anything to anyone.  This was another parroting of Clem, in this case Clem’s Neo-Sullivanian doctrine of selfishness über alles.  I simply returned his letter to him without comment.

Jules responded that he “felt bad” and that I was “unquestionably right” that I should have been invited.  He wrote that had I been there, it would have been a “comfort” to him.  Then he went on a long, bizarre riff about how he feared that I would have brought with me a “gang of three” of the New New who “made his neck itch”.  He didn’t say who the three were.  Truth to tell, he didn’t know any of them very well, nor did he know their work.  The only exception was Lucy but he was always very nice to her and, as I noted above, very taken by her paintings the one time he saw them.  He allowed that he did have “regard” for “Roy” (Lerner) and “Marjorie” (Minkin) but not for any of the others.  Then he added that he disagreed “most vehemently, with “the premise and direction of the New New” (?).  Also he said that things that I had written and said were “not rational” and, he reminded me once again, that Clem, while regarding me as “very intelligent”, described me as having “temporary insanity”.

After unburdening himself of these remarks, he again became very warm and conciliatory, saying how much he cherished me as a friend.  Finally, he generously offered me a painting of his which I had once admired, and said that “sooner or later”, he would have given it to me anyway.

I responded as follows:

“Dear Jules,

Thank you for your noble and heartfelt letter. What a relief! I do love Kristina and Lauren. We have spent so many happy hours together and I have had a thousand epiphanies looking at your art.

You gave me my first opportunity to publish my writing and my first opportunity to write a book. But above all, it is to your art that I am most indebted. I have learned so much from you. My life would have been far less meaningful had you not been who you are and achieved what you have. To me you will always be a towering figure, lofty, and majestic. I have always been a bit afraid of you. (I think Clem was too.) On the other hand, I do think of you as a warm friend. We embrace when we see each other.

Thank you too for your hugely generous and magnificent gift. I have been looking at it everyday since it arrived. I love your choice. So does Cynthia. Yes I do especially love the “Mitt” pictures. They are so rich and personal, even intimate. Yet they still have that old grandeur. This one is gorgeous. Above all, I love the “fuck you” splatter of black paint right in the middle.
I have made my basement into a viewing gallery where I can look at my art. I can hang 10 good-sized pictures at a time and rotate another 10. I move things around a lot. I have many small ones, especially in my office. The art fuels my fire. As I mentioned, I have been writing a lot in the last year or so. I am aiming to put it all up on my website in the fall.

As for the New New, they all worship your art just as I do. They all have been profoundly influenced by you. If you were familiar with their art, you would be bursting proud of them. I have been following their work for 20 years. Why not give me the benefit of the doubt? After all, I was right about you. Maybe I am not as crazy as you think. Maybe you were right when you spontaneously called Lucy’s big picture “major”. At the very least, you must agree that my condition can no longer be termed “temporary”.

Please come visit if you can. It is only 50 minutes on the train. There are lots to see, but you could see it all in an hour or so. Cynthia wants to meet you. If you can come on the weekend, we can give you lunch.

If you cannot, I completely understand. At this point in my life, I too must set priorities. I do believe, however, that you would find the visit affirming and inspiring.

I am including a few of New New catalogues. As you know, day glo, glitter paint, holographic paint and many of the other new visual qualities do not reproduce at all. People who know the New New by reproduction are amazed by how much more vivid and exciting their works are in the flesh.

I hope you have a wonderful and productive summer”.

Jules may have had a big ego but he was also always ready to catch himself and do the right thing.  In the end he was “Mensch” as well as a jumping genius.

Our altercation had brought us closer together than ever before, and we were especially close for the last four years of his life.  When I saw him last, a few months before his death, I was with Roy Lerner and we sat for two hours despite the fact that he was very weak and Kristina had originally asked us to stay only ½ hour.  But he wanted to go on.  When I told him how happy I was working in my wife’s preschool with 6 toddlers, he told me, that, if he had not become an artist, he too would have liked to work with small children.

In June of 1994 I traveled to Paris to see a two man exhibition at the Gerald Piltzer Gallery featuring Jules’ latest work together with the recent pictures of the French painter, Olivier Dubre.  Dubre was a very good abstract painter who had a strong following in France.  His pictures had an all over layout which may very well have come from Jules and which was probably the reason the dealer Gerald Piltzer had decided to show them together.  I never thought of Dubre’s work as anywhere near to Jules’ level, but in this show, Dubre more than held his own.  Here was the first time that it seemed to me that Jules was repeating himself. He must have sensed this too, because, shortly thereafter, he turned back to nature to revivify his art.  Jules had never stopped drawing from life, especially the female nude, but now he launched into landscapes and seascapes in watercolor, gouache, pastel and monotype.  Visionary and richly romantic, they recall Turner and Nolde.  I helped arrange a showing of them at the Miami Art Fair in 1997.  They were more accessible than any of Jules’ previous work, and the artworld reaction was very positive.  I especially remember a glowing review in the “New Yorker”.  For the first time in many years, Jules was receiving real adulation.  He continued doing these paper pieces until his death and there are many wonderful ones.

Then I saw some big canvases from 1995 and 1996, in Jules storehouse which clearly came out of his landscapes.  They were high in key, a bit washy, and felt to me transitional, and indeed, the next ones were better, fresher, newer:  “Mythic Sunrise Journey” and “Hierarchy of Light” both from 1998 are good examples.  Another fabulous picture from this period is “Before the Fall” 1996, which was Jules most fiery and expressionistic work ever.  And he followed this up with some terrific Soutine-like landscapes like “Mythic Sunrise” of 1997.  I was surprised that he didn’t do more of these.  But Jules was moving quickly now.

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“Before The Fall”, 1996, 60″ x 72″

Jules’ work from 1994 on, shows a new freedom and an experimentalism which can be seen as a kind of liberation.  Perhaps he was effected one way or another by Clem’s death in that year.  Perhaps Clem’s vision had become a constraint in some way or maybe Clem’s death made Jules more alive to his own mortality.  In any event, the work of the later 90’s show such a rich range of possibilities that they almost make one wonder if he had not stuck too long to his all-over, minimalist layout. 

I was incapacitated by food poisoning and missed Jules’ next big showing, a double exhibition in New Hampshire in the fall of 2003.  Jules sent me an inscribed copy of the catalogue.  It was the first time I had seen the so-called “Orb” pictures which he had begun around 2000.  I was amazed.  They are totally New New.  Jules had given up his hyper refined blending, except in the background, and, instead, featured sharp figure ground and value/color contrasts as well as aggressive drawing.  Instead of breathtaking refinement he had now become coarse, even heavy handed..

In 2005, I travelled to a mini retrospective of Jules’ paintings held in Tony Goldman’s warehouse space in the Winwood section of southwest Miami.  The show was put together by Karen Wilkin who also did an accompanying, one room survey show of Color Field Painting (single pictures by Poons, Dzubas, Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Bush and Bannard).  The Olitski show consisted of 32 pictures dating from the 1950’s to the most recent.  There were many masterworks:  a tall early stain picture from 1962, two, tall, early spray pictures from 1996 and two of the “Mitt” pictures from the late 80’s.  These were stupendous examples from the three peaks in Jules’ career.  Then there were a group of smaller pictures, none of which struck me as exceptional.  Conspicuously absent was an example from Jules’ extraordinary series on mirrored plexis.  (A current survey show, “Revelation”, which has appeared at museums in Kansas City, Houston, Toledo and Washington D.C., doesn’t include any of the mirrored pictures either.  Apparently they are still too outré for those managing the Olitski brand.)

The last room of the Miami show was devoted to the “Orb” series.  And, to me, they were a let down.  They seemed forced, and bleary.  At a subsequent show at Knoedler, the “Orbs” were again set against his older work, in this case the “spackle” paintings of the late 1950’s, and here again, the earlier pictures seemed to criticize the new ones.  What put me off I think was Jules’ massive use what looked like molding paste which made them seem dry, clogged and overwrought.  I was not a little distressed by my reaction.  At both shows, I kept looking and looking wanting a revelation.  God knows I wanted to love them.  Part of my anguish, of course, was that Jules and I had just reconciled.  But what was much, much more, was that the “Orbs” were, without doubt, a magnificent and exemplary, human achievement.  Jules had been diagnosed in 1997 with lung cancer and had undergone a serious surgery in 2000.  His response, the Orbs, were fearless affirmations, a “celebration” as he called them.  They are an inspiring, heroic assertion of the human spirit in extremis.           

From a purely artistic point of view however, the question for me, was, are these pictures more willed than inspired?  They certainly didn’t constitute a “late style” in the usual sense, as we know it say in Titian or Rembrandt:  a simultaneous paring down, and expansion of, deep essentials (that would be the “Mitt” pictures).  Rather with the “Orbs”, Jules seems to take on a whole new artistic personality.  From turning his back on the viewer, an exalted impassiveness, he now urgently, even desperately, strove to connect.

Only later, when I began to see more examples of the “Orbs”, did I come to realize how beautiful and unique the best ones are.  Smaller ones and those with watercolor and gouache are immediately fluid and airey.  Lightness and modulation of surface are found in some of the largest acrylics on canvas too.

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“Night’s Reply: Yellow”, 2002, 10″ x 8″

As I said, the “Orbs” are very New New in their basic form of address.  Karen Wilkin characterized the New New approach as “full throttle painting.”  In other words, a full out, go for broke expressionism enabled by the latest developments in the new acrylic paint, especially the many gels developed in the 1980’s with their distinctly plastic look, and greater range of thick to thin, as well as every other contemporary visual effect, however vulgar or tacky they may seem at first.  New New can be seen as a necessary return to Abstract Expressionism and the “Dionysian” after the dominance of the “Apollonian”, Color Field painting in the late 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.

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“Revelation: Red, Black and Turquoise”, 2006, 34″ x 36″

My delayed reaction to Jules “Orbs”,  stands in contrast to almost all of the others in Jule’s circle of admirers, who loved them right away:  Karen Wilkin, Piri Halasz, Terry Fenton, Jim Walsh, David Mirvish et al.  They could accept New New only when it came from Olitski.  But Jules’ best “Orbs” would both right fit in, and stand out, in any New New show.  Although many of them would seem a bit uniformly dry since Jules never fully exploited the shiny to matte scale so popular among the New New.  The Orbs remind me of a smallish picture by Hans Hofmann which Jules owned and which I saw many times in his studio in the 1970′s.  It had rounded forms and an arid surface which worked especially well in the oil medium. 

It is ironic that Jules would write to me that he rejected “the premise and direction” of the N.N.P. just as he himself was becoming a N.N.P.  And he would continue painting this way for the last 7 years of his life.  Of course Jules was also New New with his mirrored plexi pieces from the late eighties which I mentioned above.  It would be great to have a show of selections from these two series or to have them shown with the most outrageous of the New New.  If  the “Orbs” are dry in the context of New New, Jules’ mirrored plexis would more than make up for this.  The “Orbs” and “Mirrors” stand with Jules’ 1967 sculptures as his most radically original and “over the top” achievements.  I note here that Jules never used glitter paint but his daughter Lauren who is a real talent in her own right, started using it, shortly after Jules died.  I don’t believe that Jules ever used day glo color, either.

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“Romance Touch, Green”, 2002, 36″ x 34″

Jules’ specialness within the context of New New is for me his devotion to a bursting brightness (lots of yellow and white often at or near the center).  It is their blast of light, together with their aggressive tactility which gives them their expressive force.  One “Orb” often seems overbearing.  Only later does the rest of the pictures (background, other orbs, inner frames) justify the initial single note.  The very best ones though, also have beautiful color.  And despite their being smaller relative to Jules’ earlier work, the “Orbs” have a primordial, planetary quality like some cosmic event, yet very concentrated and direct.  Next to most of Jules’ pictures, the best of the “Orbs” are more aggressive, intimate, personal and full of character, but, as with his earlier work, there is that same passion for light and surface.  And the playful, funky awkwardness of the “Orbs” do remind me of some of Jules’ early 60’s pictures and many of his sculptures.  This is the opposite of his more dominant side:  the classical, impersonal and grand.                   

From the middle of the 60’s until his death in 1994, almost 30 years, Clem maintained that Jules was the greatest painter alive.  Surely Jules has no peer as regards loftiness and pictorial refinement.  He is a peak in the history of abstract painting, like Titian and Rembrandt are in traditional figurative painting.  And he remained at the cutting edge until the very end.  To me he is the most consequential painter to come along after Pollock.  And no one has been more influential.  Jules was also a sculptor of great ambition and enormous originality.  Not since Picasso has one master been so revolutionary in both mediums.