Renewing Abstraction: Olitski, Noland, Marden and Venezia
In the most recent rotation in the modern art section of its European and American galleries, the National Gallery of Canada has highlighted works by four American artists from the 1960s and 1970s: Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, Brice Marden and Michael Venezia. While continuing to create paintings on a large scale, these artists sought to go beyond the practice of the earlier Abstract Expressionists, such as Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock. Noland, Olitski and others of their generation have been associated with "post-painterly abstraction," a term coined by the influential New York critic Clement Greenberg and used as the title of his 1964 travelling exhibition. While avoiding rigid categorization, Greenberg claimed that these artists’ renewal of abstract art avoided painterly gestures and innovated with its clarity, openness and geometrical regularity.
Each of the four, largely horizontal, works is shown on a separate wall, so that each painting can be viewed autonomously. For context, they are situated between the galleries devoted to Pop Art and Minimalism, competing and distinctive strands of modern art. All the paintings were acquired by Brydon Smith, the Gallery's first Curator of Modern Art, within two years of being completed by each artist. At that time, the Gallery was in the early stages of creating a small, select collection of contemporary American art. These acquisitions, and others, ensured that strong examples of emerging American art entered the permanent collection.
The first of the four paintings acquired by the Gallery was the immense DD by Jules Olitski (1922–2007), purchased in 1968. NGC Director Sasha Suda recently described the work as: “… a giant sun lamp. It radiates and recharges. It is a blanket of tonal warmth.” While appearing to be a bright, mainly monochromatic yellow, on closer viewing the painting reveals gauzy greenish areas in the upper corners. Not easily visible in reproduction, a narrow lavender strip frames the upper edge, and a flesh-toned strip borders the left side. At this stage of his career, Olitski was exploring the material qualities of canvas and paint, employing industrial spraypaint on unprimed canvas to create veiled layers of hazy, floating colour. He aimed for a “spray of colour that hangs like a cloud, but does not lose its shape.” Art Historian and critic Rosalind Krauss has noted the uniquely elusive and unaligned quality of Olitski’s surfaces. The year following this purchase, Olitski became the first living American artist to have a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Also exploring colour and form over a long and successful career, Olitski's contemporary Kenneth Noland (1924–2010) has produced series involving circles (targets), chevrons, stripes and shaped canvases. Donated in 1970, Untitled (1967–70), the Gallery’s example from his stripes series, displays a subdued palette, unlike the contrasting, darker hues often favoured by the Abstract Expressionists. The subtly coloured bands of varying width on unprimed canvas appear to contract and expand, creating their own rhythm. Unlike the other three paintings, this work was a donation recommended by Brydon Smith, a gift in 1970 by Mr. and Mrs. David Mirvish, whose Toronto gallery represented the artist.
Younger than the others by some ten years, Brice Marden created his painting 3 Deliberate Greys for Jasper Johns in 1970, around the same time as Noland completed his stripes painting. Marden's work is composed of three panels that seem to modulate the intensity of the grey from darkest on the left, to lighter in the middle, resolving into a midtone on the right. The title and the work itself pay homage to his fellow artist. Marden admired Johns’ work and studied it closely – notably in 1964 while employed as a guard at the Jewish Museum when it hosted a solo exhibition of Johns’ output from the previous decade. Marden mixed oil paint, beeswax and turpentine, resulting in a matt quality with subdued colour fields built up in many layers. The artist remembered struggling to obtain the desired values noting: “Never dare think you're on top of grey.” Singling out the Gallery’s work in his review of the 2006–07 Marden retrospective at MOMA, American critic David Cohen deemed it: “a tour de force in the way it sustains a tension between sensuality and restraint.” In his long, successful career, Marden continues to explore different types of abstraction, sustaining and enriching the painterly tradition in modern art.
The fourth work in the display, Untitled (1976) by Michael Venezia (b.1935), is painted on canvas-wrapped stretcher bar, tilted slightly upward and positioned 152.5 cm (60 inches) above the floor from its highest point according to the artist’s direction. The grey surface is composed of oil, acrylic, rubber, glass powder and metal oxides. The materials separate when applied, creating surface irregularities. Scaled to be sprayed with a 2-quart container in one continuous movement “by its own momentum,” the work sought to eliminate any sign of artistic gesture and to form a single piece of paint. By extending the picture space into the gallery, Venezia has brought his painting closer to the wall constructions associated with Minimalism. Venezia remains fundamentally a painter and continues to pursue experimentation with a variety of mountings in addition to canvas, including oblong wood blocks and artists’ palettes.
Together, the four works also reflect a period of creative Canadian-American connection, fostered by Kenneth Lochhead, Director of the School of Art at the University of Saskatchewan and responsible for the creation of the Emma Lakes Workshops. Following Barnet Newman in 1959 and Greenberg in 1962, Noland and Olitski travelled to Saskatchewan to lead the Workshops in 1963 and 1964 respectively. In 1963, their work was exhibited by Greenberg in Three New American Painters: Louis, Noland, Olitski at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina. Alongside Olitski and Noland, Greenberg included Canadians Jack Bush (1909–77), Arthur F. McKay (1926–2000) and Kenneth Lochhead (1926–2006) in his 1964 Post Painterly Abstraction travelling exhibition. When shown at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO) that year, the exhibition impressed the young Brydon Smith, who moved from the AGT to the National Gallery of Canada three years later. The American works on view thus invite comparisons with paintings in the Canadian galleries by Bush and Lochhead, as well as with others working in abstraction and benefitting from close connections to the New York art scene, such as Claude Tousignant (b.1932) and Guido Molinari (1933–2004).
The four paintings are on display in Room B207 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.