Artist biography

Olitski was born in Gomel, Russia and lived in New York from age two. He took American nationality when serving in the United States army during the Second World War. He studied at the National Academy of Design, New York 1940-2, then, aided by the GI Bill, continued his studies in Paris, at the Ossip Zadkine School in 1949 and at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiére 1949-50. He had a solo show at the Galerie Huit in 1950, and as a result was invited to exhibit with the Cobra group. However, he returned to America where he continued to develop a painting style that had links with both Parisian informel painting and American Abstract Expressionism. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University in 1952, and a Master of Arts in 1954.

In the late 1950s Olitski became friends with the influential American art critic Clement Greenberg and in 1958 exhibited in a group show at French & Co (a gallery for which Greenberg was a consultant). The show included such artists as Morris Louis, Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland and David Smith. In 1960 Olitski began to pour and stain dye onto large canvases. He experimented with different methods of applying paint, using brushes, sponges, mops and rollers. From 1965 he began to spray paint onto his canvases in order to create dematerialised fields of colour. During these years, when he was at the height of his fame and influence, he participated in several important group exhibitions including the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (1961), Formalists at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (1963), Three New American Painters at Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Canada (1963), and the 1966 Venice Biennale.

Olitski taught at C.W. Post College, Long Island University, New York from 1956 to 1963, and at Bennington College, Vermont from 1963 to 1967. He had his first solo museum exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC, in 1967, and in 1969 was given his first sculpture show by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the first solo exhibition given by that museum to a living American artist. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston held a retrospective exhibition in 1973. His work since the 1980s has seen a return to the heavily textured surfaces of his early paintings.

Further reading:
Jules Olitski, 'Painting in Colour', Artforum, vol.5, no.5, Jan. 1967, p.20
Kenworth Moffett, Jules Olitski, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 1973

Terry Riggs
October 1997