Jules Olitski, best known as a color-field painter of deliciously vaporous, layered mists of color, cycled through several styles and had a roller coaster of a career. Olitski died at 84 in 2007, and several of his exuberant, flashy late works are up at Adelson Galleries Boston.
He was playful in the studio and sometimes recklessly inventive. In the late 1940s, he painted blindfolded for several months, a method that released him from art-school strictures. Many of his paintings in the 1950s featured thick impastos, but it wasn’t until the early 1960s, when it occurred to him that painting might be less material and more ethereal, that he began painting with a spray gun and had breakout success.
But color-field painting by the likes of Olitski and Kenneth Noland never swept the art world as abstract expressionism had. In 1973, a Museum of Fine Arts Olitski retrospective was met with a withering critical response.
He kept on painting. He was prolific.
These final paintings combine elements from the whole spectrum of his career — the breaths of color from the 1960s, the encrusted impastos of the 1950s, the lifelong delight with thrumming, strident hues.
In “Memoirs: Green,” Olitski applies washes of sharp, poisonous greens, reds, and blacks to create a deep, atmospheric space reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings. He smears floating orbs on top: Sunny, egg-yolk yellow, then imperial purple, like the sun’s shadow. Smaller, layered dabs of blue and pink to one side unexpectedly perk up the scene.
You can see the fervor of a finger-painter in pieces such as “Patutsky Embraced: Purple, Yellow, and White.” Here, the purple plays background to languid, looping drips of yellow and a meandering border. Inside, a frosting-thick white orb bounces above luscious smears of orange and brown.
Olitski’s brilliant color sense, his passion for the zing provoked by one hue hitting another, and his joy in the messy expressiveness of paint infuse every painting with energy. Even his darker canvases reveal an insouciant delight in coming to be.
Scent of a painting
You can smell Elise Adibi’s exhibition at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study even before you enter the gallery. She has mixed essential plant oils with her oil paint. The place smells like a high-end spa, with floral and herbal scents mixing into a bright, soothing aura.
It powerfully alters the viewing experience. I was contemplating an untitled painting aswirl with cobalt blue and white when a fresh wave of aroma swept by — an unexpected layer of meaning revealing itself.
Adibi offers paintings built on a tight graphite grid, and more expressionistic abstracts (with the grid evident beneath). The “Blue Tansy” grid paintings, each with certain squares systemically marked in shades of blue and scented with blue tansy, emphasize how even a regulated process makes way for the less controlled smudges of the artist’s hand.
The roiling abstracts revel, like Olitski’s paintings, in the potentials of the material: It mists, it shines; it grows opaque and foggy. In that blue “Untitled (Aromatherapy Painting),” the
paint streams, seeps, and separates in a seething round. The image is at once spritely and destructive. It, too, carries the scent of blue tansy.
I went around the gallery sniffing the paintings. Up close, they smelled of oil paint, which makes the aromatherapy effect seem even more intangible. The suggestion that the paintings are not simply what you see, but what you otherwise sense, underlines the intimate, nuanced experience of engaging with any worthy work of art: Keep your senses open. Use your body as instrument of perception. You may be taken by surprise.
Andrew Mowbray brings another of his intensely crafted, conceptually rigorous, sprawling projects to LaMontagne Gallery. For “Another Utopia,” Mowbray begins with the lagenaria gourd, which has been used as a vessel for thousands of years, and is also commonly used as a birdhouse.
Mowbray grows his gourds inside molds, making cubes with round pegs and shallow depressions. He uses them as bricks; he casts them in cement to make bright, cubic little birdhouses, and much more. They're everywhere in the gallery — the gourds themselves, and casts and models in plaster, wood, and cement, serving a variety of functions.
The project explores issues of domesticity, monumentality, and gender. In addition to the gourds, Mowbray has made quilts out of Tyvek, softening the construction material into something decorative, utilizing a traditionally feminine practice.
In a video, he saws a birdhouse down the middle, echoing Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 performance “Splitting,” in which that artist carved a New Jersey house in half with a power saw. Matta-Clark conquered his house; Mowbray, in contrast, looks like a giant on the attack.
And what of the gourds? Scattered about the gallery like “Star Trek” Tribbles, they have an obsessive quality about them. They could be the product of a score of workers, feverishly fashioning little birdhouses, and anything else you can make with a cubic gourd. Making these, the artist himself seems to be nesting.
Elise Adibi: Metabolic Paintings
At: Byerly Hall, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, 8 Garden St., Cambridge, through Dec. 20. 617-495-8212, www.radcliffe.harvard.edu
Andrew Mowbray: Another Utopia
At: LaMontagne Gallery,
555 East Second St., South Boston, through Dec. 21. 617-464-4640, www.lamontagnegallery.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.