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Joyce Zemans

Jules Olitski
The David Mirvish Gallery, September 23-October 21
Gene Davis
Dunkelman Gallery September 23-October 7

artscanada, October/November 1972.
[ 1,171 words ]


In 1964 Clement Greenberg organized the now famous Post Painterly Abstraction exhibition which was seen in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Two of the artists who showed then and whose impact has been felt by many artists of the 60s recently exhibited in Toronto. Variations on familiar themes and important new directions are the focal point in the new paintings of Jules Olitski and Gene Davis.

Olitski at the Mirvish Gallery is a painter's painter. His work expresses a refined lyricism and a sense of containment in eloquent aristocratic canvases. Transparent planes of colour and subtle interplay between colour layers dominate the paintings at Mirvish as they have his work of the last few years. But Olitski's new work indicates an effort to break away from the effeteness of Scythera into an earthier more tangibly referential form of expression. Other Pushkin Light is a relatively small canvas, a long narrow rectangle that appears to be an experiment in serial imagery contained within a single canvas. Against a veiled rose-pink ground, its blue-grey surface moves across the canvas from deepest tones to palest overlay. Visually the surface appears pitted and textured like a ceramic glaze, suggesting a much greater tactility than is actually present. The painting is particularly unusual because of the allusion to landscape. Unlike many earlier works, its statement is open and referential, reminiscent of Monet's later waterlilies.

Diaphanous colour veils are replaced by a new solidity and substance in a painting like Third Trent, a large horizontal rectangle in which drab olive-grey earth tones dominate the pitted, worked impasto surface.

Olitski has said of painting that it should be made from 'the inside out' and this remains the key to his organization of colour. In Other Flesh # 18, cream-coloured paint is dragged over soft flesh tones which barely penetrate the surface but infuse it with an incandescent glow. In a brilliant canvas titled Seventh Front, the painting is reduced to an almost totally monochromatic beige stained canvas, jarred from its inherently placid statement by a startling short bar of brilliant blue placed along the upper frame.

Probably the most significant work of the exhibition is Other Flesh #6. The mystery of earlier works gives way to dramatics when Olitski overpaints underlying vertically-applied oranges and yellows with mauve pulled on horizontally. The rich glow of the underlying warm flames is subdued and physically restrained by the heavily loaded squeegee dragged across the surface. The artist has found a new means of containment; one which sets up a subtle struggle between tactile restraining surface paint and brush work, and the warm colours below forcing their way through.

In Beauty Mouth #11, this strong painterly approach is accompanied by an opening up of the canvas. Dripped tans hang on the surface of the canvas like moisture on a window. Rivulets of paint remain suspended, but suggest an inexorable downward movement. The immediacy of the painting act in a series of narrow related canvases lends a new sense of purity to Olitski's painting.

Some of the paintings are still tentative and unresolved but there is a strengthened sense of internal form in these new works. It will be interesting to see what is to come. Gene Davis's paintings at the Dunkelman Gallery are also a summation of past work and an indication of new directions. Known chiefly as a painter of hardedge stripes, Davis reveals in these works the tremendous potential that lies within his iconographic simplification. Davis has said that he uses stripes as another artist might use the nude. They are a formal device by which he is able to concentrate on the exploration of painterly problems.

This exploration takes many forms in these paintings. Stripes are narrow or they become expanded shapes, their edges are hard and controlled in some paintings, erratic with bleeding edges in others. What we have is a restatement of Davis's work of the past ten years: his work moves from the controlled rhythm of the stately hard-edge African Prince with its large areas of black ground to the exciting almost drunken overall pinstriped effect of Diamond Jim. The fact that all of these paintings were done within the last year illustrates the artist's ease in handling those stripes, moving from one stylistic approach to another and back.

The most exciting aspect of this exhibition, however, lies in the evidence of new directions: Davis has discovered a tremendous potential for spatial exploration in his stripes. Tel Aviv is a large painting banded by vertical pinstripes. Closely spaced, these stripes sometimes press together and collide, sometimes move slightly apart creating a strong colour rhythm and movement. But most of all they define the large central area of the unstained canvas which is left bare and which in turn sets up a countervailing rhythm and system of tensions, pressing the stripes and pushing them toward the canvas's edge. This empty central space suggests Morris Louis's influence. Not that Davis is eclectic; the effect is integrated into his own expressive forms to create strong spatial tension and rhythm rather than the colour veils of Louis. Davis himself says he is not a colourist — colours are the means he employs to articulate spatial intervals; but he seems to use his colours intuitively to orchestrate the rhythm of his stripes.

In Robin Hood, Davis makes the most articulate statement of the new directions he is exploring and the romantic possibilities he has found in his stripes. On a large stained grey canvas, narrow coloured stripes hang suspended equidistant from each other reaching three-fourths of the way from the top of the canvas. Again there are echoes of Louis, but the effect is one of a great sense of space rather than colour relations. The ribbons of colour act upon the grey ground creating a series of subtle vibrations and expanding the underlying space. The painting however remains flat, tied to the picture plane by the uniform grey surface and the ribbon bands of colour.

One other painting must be mentioned, if only for its unexpected presence. The small canvas, Death of a Lilac, contradicts the artist's disavowal of interest in colour for its own sake. (He has said that his colour choice is spontaneous and that he often uses what he has most of.) This tiny canvas is a painterly exercise in the exploration of sensuous colour. Over a stained ground of pale lilac from which echoes of pink emerge, lies a grid of purple stripes. Here the bars have a psychological and pictorial purpose — holding the romantic painterly tendency of the artist imprisoned beneath them and tying the canvas together in a strong simple statement. Perhaps it portrays Davis's own struggle to escape the sometimes restrictive quality of his hard-edge stripes for the new sense of openness and romanticism present in this exhibition.

artscanada, October/November 1972.
Text: © Joyce Zemans. All rights reserved.

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