Jules Olitski

Jules Olitski

Magic Number, 1967

Acrylic on canvas


82 in. x 186 in. (208.28 cm x 472.44 cm)

Jules Olitski’s early works were characterized by densely encrusted surfaces built up from rough smears and round blotches of paint. Seeking a more original result, Olitski moved to the technique of acrylic paint stained into unsized canvas and began to employ more opulent hues and more precisely defined shapes. His feeling for the primacy of color over shape led him by 1965 to abandon drawing and composition altogether.

By using slight variations in value and contrasting hues and by spraying different colors on top of one another he inflected the surfaces and achieved subtle atmospheric effects. In this way, he dissolved the surface of his canvas into an ambiguous mist. The structure of such paintings is not the result of drawing, painted articulations, or shapes but reverts to the edge of the canvas, to the actual shape of the picture. In works like Magic Number impasto bands of paint at the edges and corners reiterate the structure of the canvas itself. They act too as a frame for the amorphous dissolving space of the sprayed center, in contrast to which they establish the flat literal existence of the canvas.

Building Number: E53

Accession Number: 1967.016

Audio Transcript

This is Jules Olitski's Magic Number from 1967. The Russian-born artist was a major figure of the Color Field movement who believed in the primacy of color over form. MIT professor of art history Caroline Jones.

"He became color itself. Not the color as it came out of the can, but color in all of its range and subtlety. He got this range and subtlety by using an airbrush and spraying fine mists of pigment onto his canvas. One mist after another, so that there are these minute halations on the surface. You'd have to use a microscope to see these tiny dots of paint."

He uses paint brush only to create the thick smears of contrasting paint that frame the amorphous fields of color.

They perform this function-- as you're looking at the painting, they tell you to come back into the center. They act as these stopping points for the weaving of the color on the canvas. This depth is really a product of our own vision, attempting to parse these veils of color. If we think of how it looks to look into a cloud, this might be how we imagine the depth of the Olitski canvas being built.