Painted in 1963, Blue Crazy is a sublime example of Jules Olitski’s large-scale Core paintings, in which imposing, rudimentary shapes in brilliant colors emanate from contrasting monochrome backgrounds. These early works marked a dramatic and formative shift in the artist’s career and would begin his life-long investigation of color, form and surface as a unified mode of expression. Painted using Magna, a specialized acrylic paint developed by pioneering colorman Leonard Bocour in 1947, Blue Crazy presents a feast for the eyes with its richly painted surface and clean lines. A favored medium amongst Post-War masters like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Roy Lichtenstein as well, Magna allowed Olitski to amplify and control tone and form with precision and a luminous, commercial finish.
Painting is made from inside out. I think of painting as possessed by a structure—i.e., shape and size, support and edge-but a structure born of the flow of color feeling. Color in color is felt at any and every place of the pictorial organization; in its immediacy—its particularity. Color must be felt throughout.”
The artist’s early examples of abstraction initially emerged as dark and heavily impastoed in the late 1950s. Soon after, the circular shapes would begin appearing in 1959 and were said to have been inspired by nude photographs, lending the imagery a uniquely biomorphic and voluptuous quality. With time, these biomorphic forms would take on bright primary hues, bringing a sense of fervor and vivacity to the painted surface. Blue Crazy, measuring six-and-a-half feet wide, is imbued with energy from its core, with the central orange sphere nearly bursting through the central composition. The crisp green that hovers around the central element appears repelled by it, almost if magnetic currents are keeping it at bay. The blue element in the lower right, though smaller in scale, appears almost impenetrable, undisturbed by the larger forms to which it is set in juxtaposition. The nearly perfect cerulean circle radiates light, and adds deep complexity and movement to the surface.
Precise yet organic, rudimentary yet complex, the viewer is tasked not only with parsing through the overwhelming beauty of color and form in conversation, but seeing these elements as coded signs that point to key tenets of modernist thought. While the viewer can be reminded of the sweet nectar of nature’s bounty, like ripe citrus fruit on a leafy branches, the viewer is also presented with the keenly modernist approach of “acknowledgment”—acknowledgment of the canvas, of the paint, of the work’s physical limitations and the power that color and form have to extend beyond those limitations. Through illusionistic flatness, Olitski calls upon the role perception plays in our interpretation and consumption of painting. In Olitski's own words, “The artist’s function, his reason for being, lies solely in the asking of the work, the inventing of the work” (J. Olitski, “Speech delivered at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, March 27, 1975,” in K. Moffett, Jules Olitski, New York, 1981).
Never bound by a singular motif or approach, Olitski advanced his painting in a lapidary way driven by experimentation, earning him credit as “the greatest painter alive” according to the esteemed critic Clement Greenberg. (C. Greenberg, in Jules Olitski: Communing with the Power,exh. cat., Vancouver, Buschlen Mowatt Gallery, 1989). The same year Blue Crazy was painted, Olitski participated in six museum exhibitions across the United States, and in just a year he would be included in the seminal Post Painterly Abstraction exhibition curated by Greenberg that began at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. With a never-ending curiosity and mastery of medium, Olitski’s approach changed quite drastically beginning in 1965, where his fascination with the spray application of paint took on with full force. This unrelenting urge for change and advancement further speaks to the rarity of Blue Crazy and the paintings that make up this short-lived yet foundational body of work from 1959 to 1964. Olitski’s ground-breaking technique and radical mastery of color and form position him as a pillar of the Color Field movement, and Blue Crazy as a key example of Olitski’s ethos: “Color must be felt throughout” (J. Olitski, quoted in K. Moffet, Jules Olitski, New York, 1981, p. 214).
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).