Jules Olitski / Helen Frankenthaler and Other Works

A Conversation Among Friends by Karen Wilkin
Interview: Lauren Olitski Poster

3 / 8 December 2013

A Conversation Among Friends
Karen Wilkin
New York, October 2013

The last time I saw Helen Frankenthaler’s Red Shift must have been in her NewYork studio, soon after the painting was completed, in 1990. Or perhaps it was in her home, where she routinely hung provisionally finished works, studying them and then, sometimes, making small changes provoked by longer acquaintance.vWe talked about the picture’s full-bore redness – a jolt for anyone who associated her exclusively with orchestrations of radiant, delicately modulated hues. In fact, Frankenthaler had an extraordinarily broad conception of what a painting could be, from rich polychromy to disciplined monochrome, from the unabashedly seductive to the far less ingratiating. Frank O’Hara understood this, as he wrote in the catalogue of her first retrospective, at The Jewish Museum, in 1960. The young painter, O’Hara said, had “the ability to let a painting be beautiful, or graceful, or sullen and perfunctory, if those qualities are part of the force and clarity of the occasion.”
Red Shift reminds us that Frankenthaler, over her half century of making art, never settled for the familiar or the expected, always seeking to be surprised by her own work. “Instead of masterly,” she said, “you want to be – well, two words I frequently use – clumsy or puzzled.” Not that Red Shift is clumsy or puzzling. But what is unusual – and powerful – is the way Frankenthaler created operatic chords not through color contrasts but also through the inflection of her materials, creating space and light with variations in the thickness and transparency of paint and changes in the scale of the marks. Striking, too, is that when this remarkable colorist restricted herself to a single hue, she elicited maximum emotional resonance from it, playing orangey reds against near purples, against a clear blue-red ground. 

It’s enlightening to see Frankenthaler’s Shift Red in the company of her older friend and colleague Jules Olitski’s luminous spray paintings of the 1960s. These diaphanous “fields” of ravishing color derive, ultimately, from Frankenthaler’s method of staining pools of color into raw canvas. But Olitski’s glowing sprays, even-handed and weightless where Red Shift is juicily varied, disembodied where Red Shift asserts the presence of the artist’s hand, announce another way that sheets of unstable color can be made profoundly expressive. At the same time, Olitski’s canvases, with their seamless shifts in color and elusive internal divisions, offer vivid proof that he shared with Frankenthaler deep convictions about the potency of color and about abstraction’s power to move us, simply through the disposition of the raw materials of painting. Was it happenstance or common inspiration that made both painters, in these works, contrast fluid chromatic expanses with assertive bands of more or less geometric punctuation? We’ll never know but it’s fascinating to eavesdrop on the conversation among these compelling paintings. 


Download PDF

Interview: Lauren Olitski Poster
James D. Barron
Rome, November 2013

James Barron: Anthony Caro told your father that he wanted his sculptures to express the materiality of the steel, and your father famously said, “If I could just have a spray of paint in the air that would stay there, not lose it’s shape...”

Lauren Olitski Poster: It’s a beautiful image. He said it flippantly, and then realized it was what he wanted to do. He went to a hardware store, got a big industrial spray machine, and then mixed magna acrylic paint with turpentine, as the paint required; he almost killed himself from the fumes. He called that painting, First One.

JB: Did your father believe in controlled chance?

LOP: Yes. He talked about play.About the need for “serious play.” About allowing for things to happen, but also knowing he was the final arbiter, he decided when a work was complete.

JB: Why did he paint at night? It seems ironic for a colorist.

LOP: Nighttime was when he felt most free to do what he wanted without interference. Later, when he could afford studio assistants, they would do their work (stretching, framing, etc.) during the day when he was sleeping and not come in and out of the studio while he was working.

JB: He was extremely close with David Smith and was with him the night Smith died, in May 1965.

LOP: That was very traumatic for my father. He told me that earlier that day, David had said,“You know that you’re going to be the one.” They were headed to an opening at Bennington College that evening and David never made it. There was a kinship. David spoke to my father about being willing to live and work in isolation (as opposed to an emphasis on commercial success).

JB: I read that Matisse said he believed in God when in his studio.

LOP: My father was a deeply spiritual person. He wasn’t religious in the traditional sense. He believed that he came closest to the divine power when he was working, and he worked all the time!