From 1963 through 1965, the American painter Jules Olitski and the British sculptor Anthony Caro both taught at Bennington College in Vermont; the former was a faculty member, the latter an artist in residence. The ambitious young artists, along with the painter Kenneth Noland, who lived in the next town, saw each other almost daily, frequenting each other’s studios and exchanging ideas. In a letter to me in 1998, Olitski recalled this as the time when the three eager young men were “finding our way into making art. In those two or three years of close contact, we began to grow, for better or worse into the men we became, the artists we became. Through each other’s eyes, supportive and competitive, our art took off.” The contact was clearly important for all of them. Even after he returned to London, Caro traveled frequently to Vermont to make sculpture, stimulated by the proximity of his American painter friends.
Early on, a crucial exchange occurred when Olitski and Caro brought their students to Noland’s studio. To counteract the silence of the awed undergraduates, the three artists started talking among themselves. At a 1994 lecture at Hartford Art School, Olitski remembered Caro’s saying something about wanting his sculpture to be about “the density of the material … and I — not mean-spiritedly, but with a touch of facetiousness — I said, ‘Well, Tony, what I would like for my painting is, let’s say, just a cloud of color that remains there transfixed.’” The conversation prompted Olitski to experiment with a commercial paint sprayer instead of the rollers he had used for several years, a change that resulted in the lush, mysterious paintings now synonymous with his name. About the same time, Caro began constructing some of his most pared-down, open sculptures to date, perhaps in response to Noland’s economical, geometric paintings of the period, or perhaps to challenge his own comment about acknowledging the density of steel. Caro often said to me, “You make rules for yourself and then you break them.”
The exhibition Caro & Olitski: 1965-1968, Painted Sculptures and the Bennington Sprays, at Paul Kasmin Gallery through October 25, offers a capsule vision of the nourishing relationship of the two artists during these formative years. Eight frankly gorgeous, eye-testing, previously unexhibited Olitski canvases are placed among three spectacular painted steel Caro sculptures. Together, the works announce the desiderata prevalent in Olitski’s and Caro’s circle, when serious, ambitious art was not expected to solve political, social, or ecological problems but, rather, was valued for addressing emotions and intellect wordlessly, through the eye. It was a time, too, when artists were interested in the idea that, as the jazz-loving, musically sophisticated Noland said, “something you looked at could be like something you heard.”
The paintings and sculptures in Caro & Olitski: 1965–1968 require viewers to concentrate their attention over time, as they do when listening to music, in order to discover what these works have to offer. Olitski’s paintings, such as the exhibition’s generous, seductive “Tut Pink” (1965), or the more reticent, more intimate, but no less rich “Purple Love” (1968), literally cannot be seen immediately. It takes prolonged looking for our eyes to adjust, so that the unstable shifts in color become visible. The radiant hues in Olitski’s spray paintings turn out not to be monochromes but, rather, delicately modulated expanses that often change dramatically across the surface of the canvas. Dull blues coalesce out of zones of intense pink and then subside again. It’s as if Olitski were testing how much he could eliminate from a picture and still have something compelling, complex, and eloquent to look at.
When we remember Olitski’s traditional art education at the National Academy School and his saying that, as a young artist, he “wanted to be Rembrandt,” we begin to see paintings such as “Tut Pink” not only as modernist affirmations of the associative power of color, but also as chromatically rich distillations of the dramatic chiaroscuro of old master painting, detached from illusion but still capable of stirring us. Olitski presents what we might read as a range of infinitely expansive, disembodied sheets of color, in different sizes, until we are stopped by events at the borders of the paintings: bands of color, masked off to “escape” from subsequent spraying or applied as punctuation with a brush. The “edge drawing” asserts the importance of the size, shape, and proportion of the hovering hues before us, marking the boundary between the painting and the everyday world. It affirms the status of the picture as a discrete object, as insistent as anything else around us, but demanding a different quality of attention and provoking different responses than ordinary things.
The same might be said of the exhibition’s three Caros, which appropriate the space we occupy and, through their unignorable presence, fulfill their author’s often stated ambition “to make sculpture real.” Despite Caro’s comment in Noland’s studio about “the density of steel,” the works at Kasmin are, in many ways, as disembodied and to be savored visually as Olitski’s paintings. More place than object, they are open structures, assembled from narrow bars and thin planes, that embrace space rather than occupy it, forcing us to move around them, seeking a view that will fully reveal their elusive logic. The clear, bright colors in which they are painted unify their disparate parts and cancel the industrial associations of steel.
Each of the three works posits a different idea about what sculpture can be. “Green Sleeper” (1965), claims a chunk of space by measuring it against the floor plane, then loosely implies upward extension with casually angled verticals. The whole should suggest a schematic enclosure, but instead keeps us at bay, engaging us with the different relationships between each slanted vertical and the long horizontals. “Prima Luce” (1966) seems more visually solid at first, but its acid yellow-green color helps to disembody its distinct parts: a pleated, vertical “screen” and a large, low-lying disc, which lightly embraces a ground-skimming horizontal. Again, the sculpture pushes us away, encouraging us to see it as a whole. As is typical of Caro’s work, it makes us experience its hovering extension and the space between its verticals in terms of our own physicality, which animates the literally weighty piece. The golden ochre “Trefoil” (1968) is the most athletic of the three Caros, with its poised central plane, levitating above fluently “drawn” arcs, punctuated by emphatic vertical bars. It’s impossible to think of the arcs or bars as supports. “Trefoil” seems as airborne and for the eye alone as any of Olitski’s clouds of color, at the same time that it seems to be entirely about three-dimensionality and articulation in space.
It’s exciting and thought-provoking not only to see these works together, but also to see them at all. In recent years, the 1960s has often been represented as the era of Pop and Minimalism, at the expense of other inventive artists, including Caro and Olitski, who were celebrated, with ample reason, as radical innovators, at the time. It’s good to see what these two masters did in their pioneering early years. Let’s hope we soon get to see what they did over the next decades of their long, productive lives.
Caro & Olitski: 1965-1968, Painted Sculptures and the Bennington Sprays continues at Paul Kasmin Gallery (293 10th Ave, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 25.