Sometimes when a painter makes prints they seem to be a secondary medium rather than a part of the artist’s essential personal expression. The opposite is true of Jules Olitski: An Inside View, currently showing at the Opalka Gallery at Sage College of Albany, where the prints clearly delineate a vital thread at the center of the painter’s life.
An Inside View was organized by the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in 2008, shortly after the celebrated abstract expressionist’s death, and has been traveling since then. We are fortunate that this wonderfully envisioned survey has a stop here (before it moves on to the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse). Comprising 47 works from 1954 to 2007, the show is carefully culled into manageable groups from several distinct periods arranged chronologically around the big, bright room.
It isn’t always best to present a lifetime of effort in time order, but here it works perfectly. We begin with two groupings of small, dark etchings from the 1950s placed on opposite walls in the gallery’s large entry space. These have the immediate effect of communicating Olitski’s early and direct involvement with printmaking and its special qualities.
Some of the early etchings are presented in multiple states, further expressing just how different this medium is from drawing or painting. In one example from 1954, titled Drawing Number One, three states show the progression from a spare study of shapes to a smoke-filled gloom; though each clearly leads to the next, these three prints remain remarkably individual.
The five small prints opposite tell a different story. Each is a self-portrait, representing the first, fourth, sixth, seventh and ninth states of a 1956 series that, apparently, could have gone on forever. I don’t know enough about etching to explain the process, but the images (presented in order) bounce back and forth from sharply delineated lines and forms to blurred and heavy masses. In all of them, a recognizable face gazes over the viewer’s shoulder, lost in introspection; what is striking is how completely different in mood each of these young Jules Olitskis appears.
After the darker early work, we jump to a whole new world, full of color, possibility, and joy. Olitski’s Anna series of lithographs, from 1969, are a bit bigger than the etchings, open and playful, with loose scribbles of hue and floating shapes. Then, his 1970 Graphics Suite #1 takes it further, using the bright inks of silkscreen to present speckled color fields on a more substantial scale (28 x 36 inches). Here, rich shades of pink, blue, ochre, red, and purple are activated by their own textures and by marks and lines at the edges of the compositions (notably, of the eight, only one is horizontal).
Another jump takes us to 1986, where the piece titled Toora (seen at the bottom of this post) nails down the Graphics Suite theme into a contrasty, more energetic crystallization, before giving way to new gestural impulses in other silkscreens from later in the '80s. Then, Olitski adopts yet another medium, the monotype – and he never looks back. His seminal 1994 monotype Without Sin (seen at the top of this post) is pure, painterly gesture.
Further explorations hint at, and then depict, actual landscapes (supported by titles such as Lake Lorrain and Breaking Light), and then, in the artist’s latest years, return to figurative and symbolic representations. Finally, Olitski unabashedly celebrates the freedom of expression that comes to many elderly people by making smaller, more intimate monotypes of memories, childlike sailboats, a vibrant dancer, and a haunting face peering out of the darkness of the past.
This major painter has left a fine legacy in these prints. Be sure to see them.
Jules Olitski: An Inside View will remain on view through Oct. 31. A reception will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. on Oct. 1 (1st Friday). As part of the reception, Olitski's widow, Kristina, and daughter Lauren Olitski Poster will speak at 7 p.m.