Jules Olitski: “Expect Nothing, Do Your Work, Celebrate”

On the 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 herself—and his practice as a whole, as well as his early infatuation with Old Master painters, and his influence on generations of artists who followed him.

Artsy: Why 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”?

Lauren 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.

He always 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, Tintoretto, Velázquez, 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 Conception) 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.

Artsy: 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.

My father 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.

Artsy: In what ways has your father influenced contemporary artists?

LO: 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.

Artsy: 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.

Artsy: In 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.

Visit “Jules Olitski: Mitt Paintings” at Paul Kasmin Gallery, through April 19, 2014.

Follow Paul Kasmin Gallery on Artsy.

Share article