Painter Jules Olitski Enjoys a Second Life

After Death, Ukrainian-Born Artist Wins Popularity

Darkness Visible: Olitski’s ‘Shekinah Light’ references the light of God’s presence.
William Atkins
Darkness Visible: Olitski’s ‘Shekinah Light’ references the light of God’s presence.

By Menachem Wecker

Published October 29, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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It’s hard to explain the feeling one experiences when standing in front of, and contemplating the dynamic movement in, Jules Olitski’s paintings. Picture a beautiful yet quickly fleeting vision of creamer diffusing throughout a cup of coffee. If one freezes the frame when the cloudiness is at its height — just before the dairy explosion mixes fully with the coffee and becomes dull and monochromatic — you might begin to imagine the forms in some of Olitski’s paintings from the 1980s and ’90s.

Olitski was born Jevel Demikovsky in present-day Ukraine in 1922, grew up in New York City and later lived and worked on Bear Island in New Hampshire. He died in February 2007.

A selection of small works, “Jules Olitski on an Intimate Scale,” is being exhibited at George Washington University’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, and “Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski” opened on September 15 at American University’s Katzen Arts Center, in Washington, D.C., after stints in Kansas City, Mo. (where it premiered); Houston; and Toledo. It will travel to the Naples Museum of Art in Florida in early 2013.

It’s impossible to talk for long with those who knew the artist well — such as his wife of 30 years, Kristina Olitski, and his daughter, Lauren Olitski Poster, a painter — without hearing about how much Olitski read both secular and religious texts. During a panel event at The Phillips Collection in D.C., E.A. Carmean Jr., one of the curators (along with Alison de Lima Greene and Karen Wilkin) of “Revelation” spoke of Olitski’s “vast reading and comprehension.” Particularly when it came to titling his works, the artist wore his Jewish identity on the sleeve of his smock.

“Shekinah Light” (1990), which is on view at G.W., was one of the works that inspired the curatorial staff at the Brady Gallery to take to the social network Pinterest to create a glossary of some of the artist’s more obscure references. The Hebrew word shekinah is a feminine term for God’s transcendent presence, which doesn’t “actually descend down from heaven, but rather is described as the light that occupies everywhere,” according to the Pinterest page.


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