Throughout his career, Jules Olitski stood just off-center of the core American Abstract Expressionists. This enlightening (all puns intended) exhibition, “Embracing Circles 1959–1964,” shows the artist at a concentrated moment in a career marked by various styles, the most signature being his multitoned spray-painted works. The sprays, unlike the circles, are absent definition of line and are the most spiritually, if ambiguously, suggestive.
A stunning colorist, Olitski began as a more European-inflected abstractionist, building thick surfaces evoking artists like Nicolas de Staël. By 1958 he had begun confining himself to circles and intense, unmodulated colors—shocking pink, orange, purple, chartreuse, red, blue, yellow—which effectively blind the viewer into submission. Then, using variations on the circle and presenting them in pairs, he created seemingly simple geometry-derived compositions. But rather than being hard-edged, his circles are soft, sexy, and playful—and beautiful, jarring, and engaging.
There are witty double-entendre titles, like Fanny Dimes (1960), a painting on a deep blue background with, at left, a large ring topped by an irregularly shaped solid circle that could be a gemstone containing a small yellow circle (the pupil of a slyly glancing eye or a breast and nipple?). It’s all absurdist, really—a dime-store ring, the “fanny” as buttocks, a zygote? Mushroom Joy (1959) presents two solid white circles surrounded by pink rims on a dark background, like white sunglasses.
The work is absolutely fresh looking and ambiguous. Fair Charlotte (1961) features two different-size circles set diagonally on a yellow ground. Both have blue inner spheres; the larger one beneath has a brown rim, while the smaller is surrounded by a wide black band with a slender, daring, shocking-pink edge. The circle has rarely had such reverential treatment as in the ten paintings in this show.