Painter Elisabeth Condon’s reflections on a painting by Jules Olitski she had seen at the exhibition Jules Olitski: Late Works—were initially presented in the first episode of Elisabeth Condon Describes a Painting, a new series artist Amy Talluto has recently launched in her podcast Pep Talks for Artists. In each episode in this series Elisabeth Condon shares her way of looking at one painting, here, at the acrylic painting (2004) Wanderings, Bilbao: Orange Yellow and Blue, by Ukrainian- American artist Jules Olitski. The show at the Sam and Adele Golden Gallery in New Berlin, NY is up until March 2023 and another concurrent show of his works was up at Yares Gallery in New York (till February 11, 2023).
Wanderings, Bilbao: Orange Yellow and Blue
The painting is easel-size, whereas other paintings in the show seem a lot larger. But the scale of all of them, no matter what size, is immense. It’s universal. It’s literally a universe of layered, flung, teased and spilled-out paint. The brown under-surface (what the French would call a “brown-sauce”—the Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna mixed to make an optical deep and glowing brown—is faded out here with some black. It creates a thin surface as it peeps through an overlayer, or shall I say, 20 overlayers of heavy thrown paint. Moving around the sides in what becomes in the late work a customary framing gesture, is a pool-frame, a poured heavy line, maybe an inch high and two or three inches wide, circling around. It’s a soft, buttery yellow, probably a Bismuth Yellow, then, flung around that on top and merging with it to make a green, is a Cerulean Blue or a Cobalt—that’s two layers right there. And remember, acrylic is water, so half of that is getting lost.
Then he is stepping the yellow up, pouring a Cad Yellow Medium. It’s an enormous pour that he’s striating with an almost light or medium orangey-red. Now, the striations are not so easy—to mix and pour the framing element, and then the poured element, takes quite a bit of physical work, strength, and massive amounts of paint (literally, buckets—he worked very closely with Golden). He’s pouring it and then he’s picking it up and moving the canvas around so that the red inside the yellow mixes in a puddle. It becomes a line or like a Suminagashi ink technique, where the marbling comes from a resinous surface in the ink when it’s dipped into the bath, and since water can’t get together with resin, they separate. Here the red starts to striate and separate, creating a marbling effect inside the yellow. But the yellow is holding its own. And as he lifts the canvas, the heaviness of the pours starts to bear down. So, you get these ripples like you would in a mangrove, where the water is getting foamy as it churns within. Mangroves are the only thing I can think of with these weird lines that are created with frothing generation that then ripples out into the water.
He leaves it to chance, but at the same time, he knows it’s going to be beautiful.
So you get three different interlocking elements upon which he casts what I see as a cast of characters or elements of a passage through time and space. Those characters manifest on the top left as a small turquoise pour, a slightly larger companion in a Cerulean pour, and then a much larger Alizarin Crimson and Cerulean Blue pour. And there is this ugly green, like a kind of forest-green, a green you’d paint a dumpster; the kind that you say, “Oh, I can’t use that,” or, “let me throw some Sienna in there.” It’s exciting because it’s so ugly. He’s doing everything you’re not supposed to do—don’t use too much paint; use paint lightly; think about the lightness of the color. And, the funny thing is, he is thinking about the lightness of the color, but just in a completely different way. It’s crazy town, but really beautiful because it’s the biggest, darkest clot, and it’s smashing into that yellow and red conflagration. As the two colors merge, paint emerges of opposing poured forces. He’s thinking big. He’s a cosmic thinker and he’s not stopping at anything.
As we travel down the left side of the painting, the big yellow pour is coming off the right top side and cascades almost all the way down until you get to the bottom eighth. And then a whole other thing starts happening. The Alizarin Crimson and the Cerulean Blue with the green infecting the area are piled on top of the endpoint of the yellow and red marbled pour. Yellow Ochre is stuck in there and gets embedded in the bigger yellow pour, which is taking everything in. Traveling down the yellow framing device on the left of the painting, dumps you into a little black pour at the bottom striated with white, which becomes a monitor of value: “Hi! We’re the extreme values! And here are all the combinations of values that you have in front of you. You can measure us with them, like a grayscale!”. Over on the right-hand side, two more pours create a counterpoint to the yellow—one is a Micaceous Iron Oxide. Super sexy because it’s like molten earth and it glitters with a hard dangerous glitter. And then closing out the painting on that left sweep, that’s composed of smaller pours, as opposed to the ginormous massive yellow and red pour. The black at the bottom is the primordial mass, and everything else is either water or fire. It’s a journey. I don’t know about “Bilbao,” but it’s quite beautiful and crusty, kind of, “Fuck you, Painting.”
Olitski has always had the agenda of painting in the air. He used an airbrush, leaf blowers; he got his hands on anything. And he kept pace with the technological changes—paint, as well as gels and mediums that boost it. Getting this result with paint alone would probably ruin the company’s, not to mention the painter’s own finances. Olitski ‘s paints are slow, thick, and gooey planetary. This is slow time; not even the Siennas are in a hurry. I want to point out a weird detail on the the big yellow goo pour that looks like a star (with the red striating through, like Suminagashi)—he’s pouring on it twice. Probably with a pouring medium, which is turgid, but it runs a little faster, so the paint is going to bake in that, and the products in the gel tease the colors apart like a marbling effect. The top part has two big blobs and two little blobs, one which runs off the side, over the framing device of yellow and blue. And it’s the armpit of that blob that I want to talk about. He’s got so much paint here that the pours are bubbling because they need to sit when you mix them with gel. But he didn’t let it sit. He just poured it out—huge bubbles that look like a small spacecraft flew into them and disappeared inside of the yellow star-pour. Then there’s a white splatter with little dots, little pours. That white splatter is humorous. It’s like, “Oh, there’s some white.” You’re looking here at pure material and you’re looking at the history of acrylic paint, both in Olitski’s career and in the technical development and history of medium.
His career and his work are almost inextricable from this relationship with technology that gives us acrylic paint. When I taught a painting class at Bennington in 1997, I went to their fabulous library to borrow an old Arts magazine with an article by Lewis Finkelstein, where he says, “Oil painting is all anyone ever needs”—snorting at acrylic. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about; were acrylics an actual outrage? I puzzled over that for a long time but now I fully understand. Art Historian Karen Wilkin draws a through-line from Monet’s overall surfaces in the late paintings to Pollock and the pour. When Pollock pours, it’s calligraphic, so paint is operating on its own, and then Olitski says, “Well, I want a mark to hang suspended in the air” and starts painting with airbrush.
I relate to this because I paint in acrylic too. There’s the desire to see the light side and then there’s the desire to see the heavy side, to get volume out of the paint. That’s what he’s starting to do in these late paintings. And he loves Rembrandt. I see the Rembrandt influence in the build-up and in the history revealed in the work. When I think of Rembrandt’s Self Portrait at the Frick Collection, in a way, that’s the ultimate statement—”Take it or leave it, People. I don’t care. When you look at me, I’m going to be looking back at you.” Olitski’s vision comes from landscape painting, from Corot or that period. There’s a few of his favorites, Rembrandt being one, and then there’s Pollock and the French trajectory through landscape. Throughout there’s a gravitas and yet an exuberance that show he clearly feels very free. So if he’s enacting a higher vision, he’s articulating a vision from the process of trust and real self. Not self-abandonment but in the sense of Guston’s quote about Song Dynasty painting: “When all your ancestors leave the room and then you leave the room.” He’s really letting that happen, and I haven’t seen this taken to such an extreme. And I haven’t heard too many artists talk that way either, at least of late. It’s more through surrealism or visionary painting now, this idea of painting as a prayer.
I’ve never seen so much “Id” in a painting—I want black? (splat); I want blue and yellow next to it? (splat). He just throws it down. But he’s crafting it. It’s like he allows himself everything, and it really is him. I’ve never seen paintings like this before. I still have never seen paintings like this. I feel like he was a very successful painter, but I’ve always thought of him as the highest point of kitsch, which is very attractive to me, because I love kitsch. And also the way that the paint is brushless painting, but it’s so aggressive. It looks uncontrolled. I know now that it actually is very controlled, but at first sight it looks like somebody flung a bunch of paint and you really have to deal with that, in the same way that you have to deal with the Rembrandt. You can ignore it, but it’s staring at you. And that physicality is incredibly aggressive, but it’s also very ballet-like, filled with cosmos. And he is alive and talks about the life force. What I responded to in his work is mostly giving oneself absolute permission. I think his past trauma and mustering the trust to paint blindfolded and all that he put himself through pace-wise, material-wise, made him a prolific producer of process-based work.
One of Olitski’s favorite quotes was by writer, G.K. Chesterton:
“There is, at the back of every artist’s mind, something like a pattern and a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would like to wander; the strange flora and fauna, his own secret planet; the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.”
Don’t you find, as an artist that there’s something that runs through in the way you construct or in the way you lay down paint— a front and a back or a certain color combination, a touch. When I look again at the yellow and red star-pour again, I see the architecture as the way that the point and counterpoint are functioning within the miasmic cosmic field. But then I also see the literal meaning of pattern as a kind of blurring of paint and the play of color and value against each other in a shadow-like configuration and striation.
That’s what I love about this painting. Also, in terms of challenge or stepping out in front of oneself and in terms of bravery and freedom in the sense that we all know we’re going to die. We all know that what we do may not matter ever, but we give it everything we have anyway. In Olitski’s case, not only with lifestyle and choices, but also just with paint. He threw everything in there, and he cycled through. I don’t see that very often, or I don’t recognize it in the way that I recognized it in him. He didn’t hone a vision. He didn’t say, “I’m a figure painter, and I’m going to go deeper and deeper into figuration until I become Rembrandt.” He was like, “I want painting to be suspended with my airbrush, or I think I’m going to get the leaf blower out and move it around. I am going all the way in. I’m going into the inner galaxy that exists within the Earth and in my mind and I’m going into my architectural landscape.” The painting is also about material. It is literally about the history of material, and not just about the way material acts because the material is doing the painting. All that is so personally meaningful to me. Frosted with 70s kitsch.
About the writer: Elisabeth Condon is a painter, who recently completed the Sam and Adele Golden Foundation Artist Residency in New Berlin, NY. Her free-flowing, synthetic landscapes compress time and place within multiple paint applications and references. You can view her work in New York at Freight and Volume Gallery, in Miami at Emerson Dorsch, and @elisabethcondon on Instagram.
About Pep Talks for Artists: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts.