occasion of the exhibition “Jules Olitski: Mitt Paintings,”in its final week on
view at Paul Kasmin gallery, we spoke with the late Color Field
pioneer’s daughter, Lauren Olitski, about
this little-seen series of her father’s work, for which he used mitts to spread
paint across the canvas. Lauren offers elucidating insight on the “mitt
paintings”—from her perspective as both the artist’s daughter and an artist
practice as a whole, as well as his early infatuation with Old Master painters,
and his influence on generations of artists who followed him.
are your father’s “mitt pictures” so important—within his oeuvre as a whole and
potentially within a larger art historical context? Did you father have a
particular intention with the “mitt paintings”?
Olitski: Words like “intention” almost never crossed [my father’s] mind. I
don’t believe even my father, himself, could tell you why his work is important
within art history. He wanted to create art that would hold up against the Old Masters
. He challenged himself every
day to make paintings that were as great, as inspiring, and as beautiful as
paintings can be. He was curious. He tried things. As a boy he saw Rembrandt
at the 1939 World’s Fair and was deeply affected by that
experience. They were the first real paintings he’d ever seen, and I believe
they gave him courage to think that being an artist might be a worthy career.
had reproductions of the Old Masters in his studio and worked from them. In the
late 1980s he had become fascinated with the works of El Greco
and after a visit to Spain, where he saw many paintings by
El Greco, as well as Titian
, he started making the “mitt
paintings.” A combination of the effect of seeing those paintings, especially
the El Greco Assumption
(now known as The Virgin of the Immaculate
) hanging in the Museo de Santa Cruz in Toledo and the recent
development of thick acrylic mediums and interference paints that he was
working with, and the discovery of a painter’s mitt that his wife had picked up
at the hardware store and inadvertently left in his studio—all played a part in
the new direction his work took at that time.
What was your childhood like? Did you grow up amongst your father’s (and/or
other artist’s) work? And how has having an artist in your life influenced you?
LO: When I
was a child we lived in an early 19th-century house in South Shaftsbury,
Vermont. It was a sprawling place with lots of formal rooms, many fireplaces,
thick molding, and very ornate wallpaper. On top of the repetitive motif of
bucolic trees and flowers would hang a Kenneth Noland
diamond, an Olitski
spray. A huge Frank Stella
irregular polygon hung above
the landing of the central stairway, and in the yard, next to the old brick
smoke house was a Caro
sculpture called Bennington
with three steel uprights that I used to ride on like a horse.
taught me to strive for excellence, to work hard, take chances, to value
beauty, and to be grateful. There is a phrase he came up with, “Expect Nothing,
Do Your Work, Celebrate.” He wrote it on a scrap of paper and tacked it to the
studio wall. Those are words I try to live by. The first part is the hardest.
what ways has your father influenced contemporary artists?
Personally I believe that many contemporary artists living today are influenced
by Olitski in ways they may not even realize. He covered so much territory in
his work, his ever growing curiosity pushing him to try more and more things
with the materials available to him; it is hard to look at nonobjective art
being made today and not see something familiar, something my father already
worked through. The big difference though, is that in Olitski there is always
life. He wanted his work to be alive. This is why I would not use the word
intention. Much of what I see today is all about “intention” and very little
about life. Too often the work is dead; clever sometimes, but dead.
What are a few lesser-known facts about your father’s work or practice that you
don’t feel enough people know?
LO: What I
don’t think many people are aware of is the breadth of work that was created.
Many people know the work of the ’60s, the stained circles, or the sprays that
came at the end of the decade. He had some commercial success in the ’70s and
created what I believe to be some of the greatest paintings of our time,
paintings that continue to influence generations of artists. He never sat
still; he never stopped trying new things or new ways to communicate his
vision. He painted, of course, but he also did life drawings, having trained as
a portrait painter. He made prints, landscapes, fantastic sculptures. His
corten steel sculptures of the ’70s are not dissimilar to those of Richard Serra
’s work of the ’80s and ’90s,
albeit on a human scale. He didn’t care at all that he fell out of commercial
favor in the ’80s. His work continued to be collected at a level sufficient to
support the expenses of his studio and his rather modest lifestyle. He always
was grateful that there were a handful of people whose vision he trusted, that
saw his art and responded to it.
what ways do you see the “mitt” series as an important body of work for artists
to see today?
LO: What I
say to artists, and to anyone, really, is see the show. The exhibition at Paul
Kasmin is expertly installed and the space on 27th Street is perfect for them.
A very carefully selected group of masterful paintings, honestly unlike any
that I’ve ever seen by any other artist, are on those walls. Stand in front of
them. Take your time. Let them work on you. Be open to beauty. Those mitt
paintings are beautiful. Be inspired. For me, I know something is great when it
makes me want to run to my studio and work. These paintings do that for me.