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Jules Olitski Photo

Jules Olitski

Russian-American Painter

Born: March 27, 1922 - Snovsk, Ukraine
Died: February 4, 2007 - New York, New York
Movements and Styles:
Color Field Painting
"Color in color is felt at any and every place of the pictorial organization; in its immediacy - its particularity. Color must be felt throughout."
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Jules Olitski Signature
"What I would like in my painting is simply a spray of color that hangs like a cloud, but does not lose its shape."
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"When the conception of internal form is governed by edge, color (even when stained into raw canvas) appears to remain on or above the surface. I think, on the contrary, of color as being seen in and throughout, not solely on, the surface."
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Jules Olitski Signature
"Decisions are being made a mile a minute while you're making the work, and it has to come out of experience and vision."
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Jules Olitski Signature
"I work day and night without sleep. The paintings keep me fired up."
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Jules Olitski Signature
"I think of painting as possessed by a structure.. but a structure born of the flow of color feeling."
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Jules Olitski Signature
"In the bedroom darkness I may visualise a way of making a painting. I can see it - if I do this and this and that and this, my God! Why haven't I seen this until now? I can hardly wait to get to the studio and make the vision real."
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Jules Olitski Signature
"Expect nothing. Do your work. Celebrate!"
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Jules Olitski Signature

Summary of Jules Olitski

Jules Olitski was a Russian-born American painter who was instrumental in the development of the Color Field school. Like his contemporaries Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis, Olitski stained the surface of his canvases in a technique that rejected the gestural brushwork of the then-popular Abstract Expressionist artists. With their emphasis on material, surface, and color's emotional strength, his signature works eliminated the illusion of depth and any evidence of the artist's touch. Although Olitski did not remain as well known as some of his fellow Color Field painters, his abstract "spray paintings" of the 1960s are still considered landmark works of this movement.


  • Olitski was interested in conveying the evocative power of pure color. In his paintings of the 1960s and 1970s, he rejected any suggestion of imagery or narrative, taking abstraction to its outer limits.
  • Olitski pioneered a technique of applying paint to unprimed canvases with an industrial spray gun. He was thus able to show the paint at its airiest and most dematerialized, as though it were still floating in the air rather than fixed on the canvas. In this way, Olitski directed the viewer's attention to the essential qualities of color itself.
  • The misty fields of paint in Olitski's signature works are remarkable for their subtle tonal gradations and their luminosity. Even in his later work, when he used heavy brushwork and a denser application of pigment, Olitski masterfully explored chromatic relationships and the interaction between color and light.

Biography of Jules Olitski

Jules Olitski Photo

Jules Olitski was born Jevel Demikovsky in Snovsk, Russia (now Ukraine), on March 27, 1922. His Bolshevik father was executed by the White Russian army a few months before his birth. In 1923 his mother and grandmother brought him to the United States, where the family started a new life in Brooklyn, New York. His mother remarried in 1926, and he took the surname of his mother's new husband, Hyman Olitsky. He changed the spelling of his name later in life after it was misprinted in a clerical error.

Important Art by Jules Olitski

Progression of Art

Cleopatra Flesh

This "stain painting" exemplifies Olitski's early work as a member of the Color Field movement. To create its bold, simple composition, Olitski poured diluted paint onto a large canvas measuring nearly nine feet in height. The vibrant, unmodulated pigment has soaked into the fabric of the canvas; although there is no brushwork, the artist's hand is still evident in the carefully plotted arrangement of curved and circular shapes. Since the diluted polymer paints dried quickly, and no changes could later be made, the artist's handling of his medium needed to be skillful and purposeful.

Synthetic polymer paint on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of G. David Thompson


Tin Lizzie Green

For the transitional works that fell between his early stain paintings and his well-known spray paintings, Olitski used rollers to apply very thin layers of paint to the canvas. This superimposition of colors resulted in varying effects of density - for example, the dark area at the top of the canvas where green overlaps red. The edges of the canvas were masked while the large fields of color were rolled onto the canvas. After uncovering those edges, the artist added a yellow streak to the left side and three colored dots along the right margin. This combination of techniques marked a newly experimental phase in his art. Olitski later remarked, "That the paintings I was doing with rollers, such as Tin Lizzie Green, would lead to the spray gun couldn't have been foreseen by me. But they did."

Alkyd and oil/wax crayon on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Patutsky in Paradise

In his breakthrough works of 1965 through 1966, Olitski began using high-powered spray guns to apply paint to canvas. This technique produced seamless layers of sheer color that seem to flow into one another without any evidence of the artist's hand. In these works, Olitski's goal was to capture the effect of the pure color floating in the air, as though he were defying the limits of the two-dimensional canvas (and of gravity itself). The work's title refers to "Prince Patutsky," a nickname that Olitski's stepfather had given him in his childhood. Olitski used this name for several works of his works from the mid-1960s. Here, its juxtaposition with the word "paradise" and the painting's bright palette may indicate a feeling of pure joy, untethered to earthly difficulties.

Acrylic on canvas - Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario


Rephahim Shade - 2

In the mid-1970s, to the consternation of his previous supporters, Olitski abandoned his spray guns and vibrant colors in favor of a monochromatic palette and broad, gestural brushwork. Although his work of this period remained abstract, its dark, earthy tones and expressive paint application were inspired by his love of such European Old Masters as Rembrandt and El Greco. The title includes a Biblical reference: "Rephahim" (or "rephaim") is an ancient Hebrew word for the "shadows" or "shades" of the dead. Olitski may have thought that his ghostly layers of lighter and deeper tones resembled spirits caught within a chaotic darkness.

Acrylic on canvas - Private Collection


Lives of Angels

In the later 1980s and early 1990s, Olitski reintroduced color into his work. Lives of Angels is painted in thick layers of iridescent acrylic paints. The shimmery gloss of the acrylic, in combination with the sweeping strokes of impasto, gives the completed painting a sense of movement and lush tactility. Olitski applied the paint not only with a brush but also with his own fingers (wearing a special mitt), so that his touch was literally present on the canvas. In some areas, the surface of the paint rises nearly an inch off the support. Despite an ongoing lack of support for his recent stylistic evolution, the artist was unrepentantly displaying his love of paint itself and of the play between color, light, and texture.

Acrylic on canvas - Olitski Family Estate


With Love and Disregard: Rapture

At the age of 78, Olitski painted a well-received series of paintings named With Love and Disregard (2002), in which he came full circle to the vivid colors and curvilinear forms of his 1960s Color Field canvases. However, the result was now raw and elemental, with crackled surfaces and harsh contrasts. During these late years, Olitski worked in a studio on Bear Island in New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee. Bear Island's rocky shore and dense forests, and its dramatic views of sunset and sunrise on the water, doubtlessly inspired Rapture's deliberate roughness and its juxtaposition of burning bright golds with deep blacks and blues. Once again, the artist had fearlessly combined his "love" for his medium with a "disregard" for the rules of art-making.

Acrylic on canvas - Private Collection

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Jules Olitski Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 17 May 2015. Updated and modified regularly
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