The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC has recently purchased three important "Life Drawings" by the modern master painter Jules Olitski from the current exhibition at FreedmanArt
, Caro and Olitski: Masters of Abstraction Draw the Figure, which runs through 9 February 2013. E.A. Carmean, Jr., has given us his historical perspective on these works.
That a highly acclaimed modern master of abstraction would often draw from the model may initially sound unexpected or at least surprising. But the training of visual acuity, and a corresponding ability to express or capture these perceptions, has been a practice of several of modernism's major figures.
Chief amongst them is surely Henri Matisse. While Matisse's long career centered around pictures of rich colors and a vocabulary of simplified shapes, often ironically set into visually active patterned backgrounds, Matisse nevertheless constantly drew directly from the model, and this throughout his long career, even during his later period making of cut paper collages of solid blue figures.
Interestingly in a parallel manner, despite David Smith's creation of the essential vocabulary of flat, assembled sculpture, he too constantly drew from the figure - sometimes further translating this draughtsmanship into a medium of drawing in black paint on canvas.
Smith's practices may have influenced Olitski's figural drawing (more likely the younger artist's return to this old convention, for earlier as an art student Olitski surely had instruction in life-drawing). During the early 1960s when living in Vermont, Olitski would visit Smith in the nearby up-State New York, and often in the company of the then-young British sculptor Anthony Caro; it is worth noting than later in their mature careers, not only would Olitski and Caro both continue to sketch from the model, but they would sometimes do so in side-by-side drawing sessions.
The trio of Phillips drawings represents three different periods in Olitski's varying drawing styles. His early 1960s works, as with the "Reclining Figure," use a combination of draftsman's techniques; here, the various crosshatched strokes of a rather fulsome definition are offset by the thin linear drawing of the figure's right forearm and leg. Here too, this drawing's mis-en-page or the placement of the figure within the field of the page, recalls certain compositions by Matisse.
By contrast, the bold straight-forwardness of his later Seated Figure, representative of the 1990s, is counterpointed by the use of over-drawing to strengthen the figural definition. While the sketch-like yet emphatic presence of the sitter suggests a tradition of drawing ranging from Degas and Lautrec to Picasso and Munch, Olitski's addition of brownish red color to his black markings acknowledges the great "trios crayons" - sanguine, black and white chalk - drawings of Antoine Watteau of the 18th Century.
Finally, Olitski's colorful drawing of the figure in a red-white-blue setting features both the off-balance composition as well as the chalked-pastel palette and markings we associate with certain post-Impressionist artists, and most especially Vuillard.