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Figure drawings by Anthony Caro and Jules Olitski on view in exhibition at FreedmanArt
Anthony Caro, Reclining Nude. By: Karen Wilkin

NEW YORK, NY.- British sculptor Anthony Caro and American painter Jules Olitski are an unlikely pair, each specializing in widely different forms of art from one another. However to the naked eye, the two men are closely linked in talent.

A selection of figure drawings — the female nude — by Caro and Olitski are on display at FreedmanArt, 25 East 73rd Street, NY starting through February 2, 2013. The exhibition, Caro and Olitski: Masters of Abstraction Draw the Figure, will feature many images seen for the first time, and is a reprisal of the 1996 exhibit at The New York Studio School .

The British sculptor Anthony Caro and the American painter Jules Olitski were separated by their disparate origins and their choice of divergent media, but they were also closely linked. Almost exact contemporaries — Caro was born in 1924, Olitski in 1922 — they were friends for more than four decades, from the early 1960s until Olitski’s death in 2007. They first became close when they both taught at Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont from 1963 through 1965, frequented each other’s studios- a period of mutual challenge and intense exchange that Caro describes as “when we made each other what we are now.” (Kenneth Noland, who lived nearby, was the crucial third part of the equation.) What brought these artists together, then, as during their enduring friendship, was their CV shared convictions: a belief that art is neither replica not illustration, that it must stir both the intellect and the emotions, and that meaning and feeling can be communicated wordlessly, by the formal and material elements of painting and sculpture. The first perceptive critics of both artists’ work, perhaps most notably Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, remarked on its invention, originality, and abstractness. Caro’s compelling steel sculptures of the period were lauded for defining an eloquent new visual language of interval, touch, and placement, while the expanses of subtly modulated color that Olitski made during the Bennington years were praised for translating the drama and expressiveness of Old Master painting into ambiguous 20th century terms. Even immutable physical laws seemed to be suspended in their radically inventive work of the 1960s. Caro’s athletic steel constructions, often more place than object, seemed to have abolished gravity, a condition mirrored in Olitski’s paintings, embodiments of his observation that “an ideal situation would be to spray color in the air and somehow have it remain there.” In the decades after these formative years, Caro and Olitski both continued to challenge themselves as their work evolved, exploring new directions, never settling for known or familiar solutions, but always remaining resolute in their commitment to abstraction.

All of which makes it surprising that these acclaimed abstract artists also share a common interest in drawing from the model. The practice dates to the earliest years of their formation. Caro had a strict academic education at the Royal Academy Schools, London, while Olitski followed a no less conservative course at the National Academy of Design, New York. For both of them, as for all traditionally trained painters and sculptors, life drawing was an essential part of their first ventures into making art. What is noteworthy is that Olitski, long after abandoning overt reference in his painting, continued to draw regularly from the model, until his very last sessions in the studio, and Caro, who declared that he was “forced into abstraction” because “the figure got in my way,” has returned at intervals throughout his long working life to drawing, was stimulating because it was so unlike their usual studio activity, physically, as well as conceptually. Drawing depended on intimate hand and wrist gestures; Caro’s sculpture and Olitski’s painting demanded full body actions, as they manipulated steel and paint at a scale and with method that owed as much to industry as to the long tradition of Western art. And since both men shared a keen appreciation of women, drawing from a nude female model was clearly pleasurable like Matisse — they seem to have enjoyed the frisson the French master said he derived from having a model in the studio. But as it turns out, life drawing also informed their abstract works in the provocative ways.

Caro drew a good deal during the 1950s, when he was making the thickest, expressionist figure sculptures that won him early attention but ultimately failed to satisfy him. After about 1960, when he began to make abstract constructions in steel, he largely ceased drawing. His mature figures studies date mainly from the 1980s, beginning in 1983, when he joined the evening life drawing sessions at Triangle Artists’ Workshop ( a still-vital biennial event for international professionals that he founded) as a way of recharging after a day of working ins steel. Drawing demanded a complete revision of Caro’s usual ways of thinking; translating three-dimensional reality into a much smaller two dimensional illusion by means of hand gestures was the antithesis of his normal direct engagement with substantial materials at full scale. Life drawing might have remained simply at refreshing diversion if it hadn’t been for the model at Triangle, a sturdy, voluptuous young woman, half-Maillol, half-Lachaise, with overtones of the sensuous Indian carvings that Caro admires and collects. Caro the sculptor was fascinated. He drew the young woman repeatedly over the next few years and even modeled sculptures of her in clay- something he hadn’t done for more than twenty years — making a series of surprising reclining and seated nudes, a later cast in bronze, each unique.

Perhaps it was the sheer mass of the young woman’s forms that provoked this return to modeling solid forms. Certainly Caro’s drawings of her suggest potentially buildable volumes in their focus on the body’s zones of greatest fullness and solidity: ample thighs, solid haunches, the junctures of hips and belly, heavy breast. This is to say, Caro draws like a sculptor, evoking massive forms with broad strokes and vigorous passages of tone. Often aggressively cropped by the edge of the paper, these fictive volumes press towards us, as if trying to wrench themselves free of the confining paper to become fully three-dimensional. We could be forgiven for thinking that three-dimensional versions of these fleshy drawings would resemble Caro’s pre-abstract sculptures of the 1950s: robust, economically rendered bronze men and women who struggle to rise or to pull on a shirt. Yet the sculptures he made of his full-fleshed, Rubensian model seem more closely related to his gravity-defying steel construction than to his early figures. Like his hovering Table Pieces Caro’s bronze nudes of the 1980s reach easily through space, resting lightly on their plinths and chairs, and sometimes launching themselves over the edges, as the abstract Table Pieces often do. For the first part of his working life, Caro’s abstract steel sculptures, were frequently more metaphorically drawing-like than any of his bold charcoal figure drawings-like than any of his bold charcoal figure drawings-which is, in fact, part of what makes these constructions so abstract. Since the late 1980s, however, he has been increasingly preoccupied by notions of volume and mass, interior and exterior in his constructions, building structures that simultaneously suggest place-in the sense of architecture-and the body- in sense of what the body inhabits and experiences. He has made large scale works that must be entered or walked through, if they are to be fully understood, and now courts the kinds of associations, including allusions to the figure, that he once scrupulously excluded from his work. He has made occasional portraits, a series of over-scaled bronze heads inspired by his wife, the painter Sheila Girling, several large cycles of work freely exploring such themes as the Trojan War and the Last Judgment, plus a permanent installation of highly allusive reliefs for a 13th century chapel in Northern France. These forays into a personal kind of figuration have always coexisted with his making of large, all-stops-out abstract constructions. Working figuratively, Caro says, refreshes him. “I enjoy it. I don’t have any hobbies, you know,” he says, not altogether facetiously. “The only thing I like doing is making sculpture.”

Unlike Caro’s earlier sculptures, which he strove to make as “real;” as anything else we encountered in our daily lives but, at the same time, to remind us of nothing but themselves, much of his recent and most ambitious work in steel addresses, in abstract terms, our relationship to the places we inhabit, our sense of how we move through space, and our awareness of the difference between interior and exterior, among many other enriching allusions. Unlike the linear “drawing in space” constructions that first established his reputation, much of his recent work is about enclosing space, made of generous elements that describe real and suggested volumes. It’s worth noting that Caro has begun to draw the figure once more, in notably different ways than he did in the 1980s, now conjuring up dense forms with broad passages of soft-edged luminous tones. It is, of course, impossible to say whether Caro’s increasing willingness to explore issues he once banished from his art led him to begin drawing from his figure again or whether thinking about specific massive forms as he drew from the figure encouraged this expansion of his legendary protean inventiveness, but it seems unlikely that two phenomena are not related on a very level.

Olitski’s commitment to drawing the figure is more constant and unbroken than Caro’s- a long- term marriage rather than a series of intense encounters. His diverse images of the nude, in a wide range of mediums, span forty years, with a notable burst of activity and experimentation in his last decade or so. Each model who posed for Olitski seems to have provoked, through her individual body type and her way of holding herself, a different kind of drawing from him, a different touch, sometimes a different scale, even, occasionally, a different medium. Some of these women demanded meticulous modeling and crisp, incisive lines; others have inspired brisk, apparently rapid strokes, and others, especially in his last years, broad patches of intense, bold color. Some models reminded him of female types “claimed” by other artist and echoes of their images can make themselves heard in Olitski’s responses-well- padded figures who suggest Renoir’s nudes, for examples, or reclining Titian-esque “Venuses.” The variety of Olitski’s approaches is impressive: drawings in which he explored the notion of suggesting motion and multiplicity with spare vivid lines, layered like the palimpsests of cave paintings, or in which he combined colored lines with charcoal, as if evoking Old Master drawings in red, white, and sepia chalk. In many of his last “drawings,” the expanses of brilliantly hued, saturated pastel are so dense that these intimate little works on paper can really be considered as paintings. In fact, the density of their color zones and solidity of their bodies are exact cognates of what the octogenarian artists was doing in his last, turbo-charged series of paintings on canvas, works distinguished by heightened physicality, urgent clumps of pigment, suggestions of infinite space, and cosmic drama. Olitski was a virtuosos draftsman-“When I was young,” he used to say, “I wanted to be Rembrandt.” But in spite of his inherent, carefully natured skill-or because of it-he often seems to have been more concerned with feeling in his drawings than with evoking appearance, as if he wanted to work out of intuit on and deeply assimilated knowledge, rather than to think about “good drawing.” It’s worth remembering that Olitski once made a series of paintings while blindfolded, “to get out of my own way.”

If Caro’s efforts are obviously “sculptor’s drawings,” Olitski’s are quintessentially “painter’s drawing.” His sensitivity to both expanse of his page and the continuousness of his surroundings led to the frequent inclusion of glimpse of the model’s surroundings to potent suggestions of setting by means of the placement of the figure. As well, Olitski often drew multiple figures, fascinated, it seems, by the relationship of repeated, closely related but individual shapes and forms across the page. When Caro draws the human body, he concentrates on its three-dimensional singularity wholly absorbed by dynamic massing; incidentals-towels, beads, chairs-become “real” to him only when he models the figure in clay, an additive process that seems to allow him to consider other kinds of three-dimensional forms. Olitski could find a background radiator or the back of a coach as interesting as a thrusting knee and both could elicit equally evocative marks.

Ultimately, it is the mark itself or the expanse of color that dominates Olitski’s works on paper, no matter how powerfully those means suggest shape or heft, resilience or softness. Just as his nacreous abstract canvases depend upon orchestrations of tonal and coloristic nuances, Olitski’s drawings depend upon all-over inflections of repeated lines, smudges, wisps, and sheets of tone and color, played against decisively bounded shapes. Like Caro, Olitski was alert to the weight of the body, but rather than describing robust forms in his drawings, he made painterly equivalents for his awareness: passages of densely layered strokes and insistent scumblings. Unlike Caro, Olitski rarely concentrated on the “sculptural” torso to the exclusion of other elements, preferring to include extended limbs and particulars of features and hair.

The relationship of Olitski’s figure drawings to the abstract color paintings on which his reputation rests is subtle, complex, and very significant-which doesn’t mean his paintings are disguised images of the female nude any more than Caro’s horizontal sculptures are disguised reclining figures. But both artist’ abstractions are plainly infirmed by our common experience of inhabiting the body. Witness the way we measure even the most non-referential of Caro’s sculptures against our awareness of our own kinetic perceptions, appreciating interval and placement in terms of a sense of extension. In Olitski’s paintings, this kind of awareness is triggered by such works as a series of canvases from the 1970s punctuated with a long, slow horizontal line, like the distilled essence of reclining odalisque. The sense of the body endures, too, in paintings of the 1990s in which he applied thick, iridescent pigment with rhythmic swipes. The presence of the hand, like a remembered caress, is made visibly by these gestures and momentary suggestions of body forms emerge in these pictures, as fleeting of body forms in these pictures, as fleeting as their color shifts. Yet however informed they may have been his life-long enthusiasm for life drawing, Olitski paintings, like Caro’s sculptures, were always about the power of abstract art to communicate powerfully without words, overt allusions, or explications.

In the abstract paintings and sculptures that established and sustain their reputations, both Olitski and Caro transformed the possibilities for their respective disciplines, formally, conceptually, and, materially. Known that these restless, unconventional radicals also relished working in traditional ways, in response that most time- honored of subjects, the female nude, enlarges our understanding of their celebrated abstract works. Such knowledge affirms our sense that Caro’s mysterious sculptures and Olitski’s radiant paintings resonate with an eminently human sensuality that returns us to the body as the site of perception and sensation. But, in the end, what is most important, Caro and Olitski’s drawings reward our attention for their own abundant merits as drawings. Who knew that these matters of abstraction made such splendid images of the figure?

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