Jules Olitski, Argos, steel, 2006

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Jules Olitski: Late Sculpture
Through 2007 at the Katzen Arts Center

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At Vermont’s Bennington College in the ’60s, Jules Olitski, then the director of the art department, befriended British sculptor Anthony Caro, whom Olitski had given a temporary post. Caro repaid the favor by inspiring the painter to take a spray gun to his canvases. The results—airy atmospheres of layered, subdued colors—became his post-painterly signature. It’s fitting that toward the end of his life (he died this past February)—marked by a staggering fall from grace with critics after hitting the rarefied heights of a one-man show at the Met—Olitski tipped his hat to Caro. The three sculptures from the 2006 “Cyclops” series, his last major works, are brightly plumed concrete-mixer shells, fitted with holes, laced by spiraling steel helixes, and seemingly propped up by steel bars and cantilevered wedges. Two of the monochromatic, egg-shaped pieces are painted in pink and purple Easter pastels, and the third is Day-Glo green; the paint is Olitski’s own formula, an industrial oil based on deck paint. (Thankfully, the formula is in American University’s possession: After the journey from Vermont to D.C., the sculptures could use some touching-up.) As a painter, Olitski was particular about surface values, preferring the grainy texture that distinguished his spray-paint canvases or else impasto; the color application in the “Cyclops” pieces is straightforward and flat, however. Whereas Caro used bold colors to emphasize the density of steel, Olitski hopes to lighten the load with vivid color. His use of form also gives a lift: Accordion wedges arc upward along the exterior of his hollowed-out shells. But the roughshod execution goes too far, and the pieces look a little flimsy for it. The interiors are the most Olitski, with helixes and double helixes punctuated by variously sized holes—the kind of dots that the artist loved to use to enjamb vast fields of color on his canvases.