Jules Olitski

Spraying It, Not Saying It.

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Olitski certainly did not sell as well as Picasso, but following his staining and dying phase, he began creating thicker, textured works like Noble Regard (1989), which looks like a bronzed intestine cropped to look like a maze. The textured works gave way to Olitski's final body of monotypes, mostly of landscapes depicted in soft pastel colors. A monotype is a painter's print, or a print that yields a one-of-a-kind image. Olitski scraped into the paint with his fingers and other tools before printing them.

The 2004 monotypes include Amid Sailboats an Angel, a "sea" of orange, pink, yellow, and blue with triangular boats and a wading figure. A circular form which surrounds the boats could either represent a whirlpool that will swallow them up or an upward, spiral motion that could launch the boats into the clouds. Moon Ravished is framed by four pink strokes, with an orange ground and green sky containing a white moon.

Amid Sailboats an Angel

Courtesy of Lauren Poster Olitski.

Many of the monoprints are biblical. Jakim's Dream probably references Jehoiachim, and After the Fire (an Elijah reference from 1 Kings), Dancing Hannah, and Reumah Waiting also derive from biblical tales.

Although the media overwhelmingly responded positively to the monoprints, some writers pointed to a sunken reputation and Olitski becoming "a victim of the rise of conceptual art." The criticism hardly bothered Olitski, who often said, "Nobody asked me to be an artist."

Moon Ravished

Courtesy of Lauren Poster Oliski

But many will remember Olitski as a Jewish artist, who quoted Isaac Bashevis Singer in artist's statements, and wrote of his work in Genesis terms: "I ask the Almighty for help. That frees me. Look at what He is able to do with a handful of dust and a rib, and here I am with all this paint and a brush and my life in my hands, and all I need is to make a good work of art." At an opening of Olitski's work in Washington, D.C. in May 2006, his third wife, Kristina, added, "When my husband sells a painting, he gets down on his knees and thanks God."

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Olitski's model of a color spray that hangs like a cloud, but does not lose its shape so evokes the bush Moses encounters in Exodus, burning with flame but not consumed.

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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.