Jules Olitski

Spraying It, Not Saying It.

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Jules Olitski's painting Dance of David from his series With Love and Disregard (2002) is aptly titled. The work consists of lush swirling forms of blue, white, black, yellow, and brown set on a red background, but the non-representative painting seems to disregard King David's actual dance (from 2 Samuel, Chapter 6).

Indeed, many of Olitski's titles tackled large narrative topics, often biblical--like his paintings Belshazzar's Feast, Play of Daniel, Susy and the Elders, Rapture of Angels--but he never allowed himself to become a slave to those literal stories.

Instead, like a child finger painting or smearing icing on a cake, Olitski--who died on February 4, 2007--redefined painting as an act of mark making. He boldly abandoned the traditional mode of painting (an action done to a canvas with a brush) and used a spray gun to stain his canvases, in search of "a spray of color that hangs like a cloud, but does not lose its shape."

Like few painters before him, Olitski attached himself to biblical themes and narratives. In 1959, he painted Bathsheba II, and his most recent body of work contains many references to the Bible. But one critic argues that the most Jewish aspect of Olitski the painter was his "stylistic joie de vivre" with a "characteristically Jewish" blend.

The Young Dyer

If Olitski's painting career was an effort in cloud making, he was born into a tragic storm. Jules Olitski was born Jevel Demikovsky in Snovsk (now Ukraine) on March 27, 1922, just months after the Bolsheviks executed his father. In 1923, he immigrated with his mother and grandmother to New York. His mother remarried, and young Jevel took his stepfather, Hyman Olitsky's name in 1926 (the name was later misspelled on a document, which yielded "Olitski").

Growing up in New York, Olitski sold papers at age 11 and was shocked that people ignored the news trickling out from Europe about the Holocaust. "I was living in this community of decent people, but most of them had never seen a Jew. My teachers thought I was Irish," he told one reporter at age 68 at the dedication of his seven-paneled Star of David sculpture commissioned by the Beth Tzedec (Toronto) congregation's Holocaust Memorial Committee.

"Why was nothing said or done about the Holocaust? This terrible silence has haunted me all my life." Olitski called the sculpture Elyon (heavenly) to evoke "all the lights that God created." He said the project represented the first time "I could speak through my art as a Jew" and told the reporter, "I hope my work is imbued with this light. As an artist, I feel for a work of art to be any good it must be alive. It must be a work that lifts the spirits."

Olitski studied at the National Academy of Design and Beaux-Arts Institute in New York between 1939 and 1942. He served in World War II and subsequently traveled to Paris on the G.I. bill in 1949, studying with Ossip Zadkine in the Zadkine School of Sculpture (1949) and in the Academia de la Grande Chaumiere (1949-1950). He returned to New York in 1951, where he earned his bachelor's (1952) and master's (1954) in art education from New York University.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.