REFLECTIONS ON MASTERPIECES
Jules Olitski, WITH LOVE AND DISREGARD: ENCHANTED AT DAWN, 2002
Water-based acrylic on canvas, 40 x 30 inches.
Jules Olitski died on Feb 4th, 2007 at the age of 84. For artists of my generation, who came of age 1960s and '70s, Jules was a beacon, an artist who showed what was possible in the realm of abstraction with the newly-developed acrylic paints. He was to acrylics what Titian had been to oils, a great master of the painterly, one of the most fertile and inventive artists of the 20th century. Against the grain in the 1980s and '90s he held out for high art and quality against the depredations of the "post-moderns". His art was reviled as much as it was admired. It still is. His articulate writing was too easily overlooked; Jules possessed a unique prose style, something rare among artists. What follows was written for The Edmonton Art Gallery's Update magazine of July-August 1985.
-- Terry Fenton
THE MOST VIVID SENSE I ever had of a literal connectedness with the past in art was when some years ago I was looking at a beautiful fresco by Piero della Francesca in a little chapel in Monterchi, Italy. It shows the Madonna stepping from a tent. Her hand is on her belly, indicating she is with child; on each side of her an angel stands, holding up a flap of the tent. When I turned to leave I looked into the face of a boy, probably the gatekeeper's son, and I froze. Separated by five hundred years, there was the same face that had posed for one of the angels.
When I was young, the painter I admired most was Rembrandt. I'm still affected by a great Rembrandt in somewhat the way Emily Dickinson said she was by the real thing in poetry: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." That was pretty much my reaction seeing his Bathsheba (at the Louvre).
Whenever I'm in New York I try to get to the Frick Collection at least once, if only to see The Polish Rider. Of course there are other terrific works of art at the Frick, but that's the one painting I must see. Anyway, about The Polish Rider: not long ago I stapled a large reproduction of it to a wall in my studio. I was going to get inside that painting. I was going to take it apart, open it up like you might an unusual sounding clock to see what made it tick the way it did. I painted from that reproduction in painting after painting I did at the time. You know what I mean; I used it almost as I would a model. I kept referring to it, trying to get the inner structure of the painting to somehow serve my purpose, my vision. Didn't work. I turned that damned reproduction every which way, and its secret eluded me. What a painting! It's all undulating surface, seamless and impenetrable; a good Rembrandt has no holes.
Rembrandt, The Polish Rider
When I went to Holland sometime in the late '60s, it was mainly to look at the Rembrandts. And there was plenty to see, though not as many masterpieces as I'd expected (and I must say I was a bit let down by The Night Watch.) Frans Hals whom I had always gone for was in more than a few instances even better than I'd realized: that large, almost mural-sized painting of The Regentesses of the Old Men's Almhouse is a masterpiece.
Franz Hals, The Regentesses of the Old Men's Almhouse
I don't know why, but just now an image of Correggio's Rape of Io flashed through my mind. I've never seen the painting in the flesh, but it's memorable even in reproduction. I first saw it in a book by Thomas Craven called, I believe, .Masterpieces of Art. This must have been over 45 years ago. The book cost ten dollars and that was real money in those days. I hounded my poor mother until she bought the book. And what a wonderful book it was: beginning with Giotto (maybe earlier, I forget) and including Picasso and Cubism, and then sputtering to a sad end with Benton, Curry, and Wood.
Getting back to Holland, there was one painting that knocked me for a loop: Vermeer's View of Delft. You can't tell anything from a reproduction -- it just looks like, well, like what after all it is: just a painting, just a painting. I always admired Vermeer, but nothing of his I'd ever seen prepared me for the View of Delft. Coming on it before I even knew who painted it, the experience was an almost excruciating pleasure, maybe something like being in paradise and in the electric chair at the same moment. It was like when I was 18 and heard Beethoven's Missa Solemnis for the first time. Anyway, to my eye, it was as close to miraculous as paint can get. Vermeer is so mysterious, it seems somehow appropriate that we know so little about him.
Jan Vermeer, View of Delft. c. 1660-1661
At the Caravaggio show recently at the Met, there was a great big black Tintoretto that was wonderful, and a damned good painting by Annibale Caracci of a butcher shop: hanging carcasses, lots of dripping blood; a lovely painting. By the same artist, a terrific dead Jesus lying on the ground, all foreshortened so that the soles of his feet are right in your face.
Those soles were beautifully handled, worthy of Goya (can't do much better than that; I think even Manet would agree). In the same gallery, Guido Reni's poor Goliath with that ghastly hole in his head. I was surprised at how good the painting was; not that I wouldn't trade it in a minute for one of those great drawings by Rembrandt. What I wouldn't give, say, for Rembrandt's Eleazar and Rebecca at the Well. It's a very free drawing, a few scrawl-like lines and a wash of ink. Andrew Hudson gave me a good reproduction of it and my wife Kristina hung it on our bedroom wall. Do you know the drawing? A huge camel behind the two figures, just dominating everything; a hulk of presence almost without shape. The drawing just dances on the white paper, like a splash of ink going plop, plop -- woosh! Looks like it could have been done this morning.
As you know, it's not cool these days to acknowledge any connection with previous art. What a hunger for immaculate conceptions among some of our artists. When did this begin? I remember reading a piece by one of the eminences of Minimalism (was it in Art News back in the late '60s or early '70s?) in which he appeared to be claiming that he and his co-Minimalists had given birth by themselves to themselves: their art owed nothing to the past or present, nothing to no one. For shame; even the Holy Virgin admitted some contact from some source. Of course tradition can be intimidating; we can influence ourselves right into academic paralysis, which is probably what Emerson was warning his contemporaries against: "Carry not the corpses of yesteryear on your back..." Take what you can use from the past and throw out the rest. Keep going back and you'll find more and more to take and maybe more and more to get rid of. It seems the tradition that fathers you is the one you most want to transform; it's the one you bounce off against time and again until you've made something of your own. This creation (call it your vision) may not look at all related to its father, and the more different it looks, the more likely it will get put down, especially if it's good. Why else has Friedel Dzubas, for example, or Jack Bush, after all these years, not gotten the recognition he deserves?
What to say to a nice neighbour of mine, a man who hasn't the foggiest notion as to why Rembrandt is in a different league than Ben Shahn, but who feels free to jeer and go on about "that phony Jackson Pollock and the rest of them fakes"? He says he loves Leroy Neimann and wouldn't mind owning a painting by that guy who cut off his ear. I was foolish enough to point out to him that Rembrandt painted some of the most original paintings of his time, but if he were alive today he would not be painting Rembrandts as we know them.
One reason, maybe the best, why we go to the museum is to see great art, to get the look, the feel, the "smell" of quality. It's as simple as the reason Willie Sutton gave for robbing banks: "It's where they keep the money." The great museums are where great art is.