Art History Lab

Pushing Boundaries: The Innovative Career of Jules Olitski

Jules Olitski was a prominent artist in the 20th century and a key player in the development of post-painterly abstraction. Born Jevel Demikovsky in Snovsk, Russia on March 27, 1922, Olitski grew up in a Jewish family before emigrating to Brooklyn at the age of eight.

In this article, we will explore the life and career of Jules Olitski and examine the major themes of his work.

Early Life and Background

Olitski’s parents were musicians, and he grew up in a creative environment that encouraged his artistic inclinations. He attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied under artists such as Adolph Gottlieb and had his first solo exhibition at the Alexander Lolas Gallery in 1948.

In 1949, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the National Academy of Design, and later the Beaux Arts Institute in Paris.

Education and Career

Olitski’s career took off in the 1960s when he developed what would come to be known as his signature style. He began experimenting with spray guns to apply paint in thin layers, creating delicate and subtle shades of color that were unlike anything that had come before.

This technique became known as atomizing color, and it allowed Olitski to create a sense of depth and space within his works that was unmatched by his peers.

In addition to his work as an artist, Olitski was also a committed teacher.

He taught at several institutions, including C.W. Post College and Bennington College, and he was a mentor to many aspiring artists. Despite his success, Olitski remained humble and grounded, always striving to learn and grow as an artist.


Olitski’s work has been exhibited in some of the most prominent art galleries and institutions around the world. In 1964, he was invited to participate in the Carnegie International, where he exhibited two large canvases that became the central focus of the exhibition.

In 1966, he was selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, and his work was shown alongside that of other prominent American artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. One of Olitski’s most important exhibitions was held at the French and Company Gallery in New York in 1965.

The exhibition included a range of his works, from large canvases to smaller studies, and it cemented his reputation as one of the leading artists of his generation. In 1981, Olitski was honored with a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which showcased the full range of his career and included many of his most iconic works.

Early Influences

Olitski was deeply influenced by abstract expressionism and the teachings of Hans Hofmann, who emphasized the importance of color in painting. He was also influenced by the work of other artists of his generation, such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who were exploring new techniques and materials in their own work.

However, Olitski’s use of spray guns and atomized color set him apart from his peers, and he became a leading figure in the development of post-painterly abstraction.

Post-Painterly Abstraction and a Spray Gun

Post-painterly abstraction was a movement within abstract expressionism that emphasized the use of color and form over gestural brushstrokes. Artists working in this style often used new techniques and materials to create a sense of depth and space within their paintings.

Olitski’s use of a spray gun to apply thin layers of paint was a key innovation in this movement, allowing him to create works that were at once delicate and powerful. In Olitski’s work, the paint becomes a kind of mist, suspended in the air and hovering just above the picture surface.

By layering these thin layers of color, Olitski created a sense of depth and texture that was almost sculptural in its effect. The resulting works are intricate and complex, and they reward close attention with a variety of nuances and subtleties.

Major Artworks

Some of Olitski’s most famous works include “In Memory of Slain Demikovski,” “Cleopatra Flesh,” “Thin Lizzie Green,” and “Patutsky in Paradise.” Each of these works showcases Olitski’s use of atomized color and his mastery of the spray gun. “In Memory of Slain Demikovski” is a large canvas that features sweeping arcs of color that seem to be suspended in the air.

“Cleopatra Flesh” is a smaller work that is no less powerful, with delicate layers of color that create a sense of movement and energy.


In conclusion, Jules Olitski was one of the most important artists of his generation, and his contributions to the development of post-painterly abstraction cannot be overstated. His use of the spray gun and atomized color was a key innovation that expanded the possibilities of painting, and his works continue to inspire and challenge artists today.

We hope this article has provided some insights into the life and work of this remarkable artist. Throughout his impressive career, Jules Olitski continuously sought to evolve and innovate as an artist.

Late in the 1970s, he began to return to the use of impasto, a technique he had largely abandoned in his earlier work. He also began to experiment with watercolors, creating a series of landscapes that were more naturalistic than his previous work.

Returning to Impasto

In the earlier years of his career, Olitski was known for his use of color fields and the thin layers of paint created through his atomization technique. However, in the late 1970s, he began to reintroduce impasto into his paintings.

The impasto enabled Olitski to experiment with texture and depth in new ways, creating paintings with a sense of physicality that his earlier work did not have. This shift was most evident in his work “With Love and Disregard,” which features thick swaths of paint applied with a palette knife.

These swaths of paint give the work a sense of three-dimensionality and create a play of light and shadow that was not present in his earlier works. This was a significant departure from his earlier work and demonstrated his determination to continue exploring new ways to use paint and color.

Landscape Series

Another significant development in Olitski’s work was his landscape series, which he began to create in the 1980s. In these works, Olitski depicted landscapes in a more naturalistic and representational style than his previous work.

The landscapes were inspired by his travels, particularly to Bear Island, a remote island off the coast of Maine where he often retreated to find inspiration. The watercolor series is particularly noteworthy for its use of color.

Olitski used a muted palette that was unlike the bold and vibrant colors seen in his earlier work. Instead, the color was more subdued, reflecting the natural world that he was depicting.

The landscapes were often viewed from a high vantage point, looking down over rolling hills, forests, and lakes. One example of this series is the watercolor work “Bear Island,” which depicts a rocky shoreline overlooking the ocean.

Olitski’s use of watercolor and muted tones gives the work a sense of tranquility, as the colors blend together like waves lapping at the shore. Another work in the series, “Mountain Lake,” shows a serene lake nestled in a mountain valley, with a peaceful tranquility that contrasts with the more frenetic energy of his earlier work.

Olitski’s landscape series demonstrated his continued commitment to innovation and exploration, as he sought to find new ways to push his work forward while maintaining his unique vision as an artist.


Jules Olitski’s return to impasto and his landscape series demonstrate his continued evolution and innovation as an artist. His use of impasto allowed him to explore the physicality of paint in new ways, while his landscape series showcased a more naturalistic and representational approach to art.

Olitski’s ability to continually push the boundaries of his own work is a testament to his creativity and vision as an artist, and his influence can be seen in the work of contemporary artists today. In this article, we explored the life and career of Jules Olitski, a prominent artist who made significant contributions to the development of post-painterly abstraction.

We looked at Olitski’s early influences and his innovation in using spray guns and atomized color to create depth and space in his paintings. In the late 1970s, Olitski returned to the use of impasto and began exploring more naturalistic landscapes in his work.

Olitski’s continuous evolution as an artist demonstrated his commitment to pushing the boundaries of his own work and offers a lasting legacy in modern art. Takeaways from his work include the importance of color and texture in painting, and the continued possibilities for innovative techniques in the contemporary art world.

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