On a rainy Thursday afternoon, it was a pleasure to see Revelations: Major Paintings of Jules Olitski at the MFA in Houston. For many years there have been too few big painting shows in Houston focusing on a single artist, whether a survey by a deceased artist or a mid-career retrospective by a major living painter. I’ve been envious, for example, of the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, which has offered some gorgeous exhibits by painters such as Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Philip Guston, Sean Scully, and Joan Mitchell.

A survey show allows us to take a step back and look at the entire arc of a painter’s career. An artist like Olitski made a number of twists and turns in his 50+ year career, but he stayed committed to abstraction throughout, unlike painters such as Guston, who re-introduced representational elements late in his career. Olitski seems to have been captivated by the sheer physicality of his materials and by the act of painting. Many of his works are odes to color, though I found myself going back to several paintings that were dark and muted, almost totally void of pure color.

The exhibit begins with his “stain paintings” from the 1960’s. Because so many art books serve up examples from this period (and some of these works have become iconic images, turning up prominently on posters in college dorms), it’s tempting to walk by them fairly quickly, because we feel that in a way we already know them. The MFAH show has 6 from this period…huge areas of flat color, primary colors, some swirled into organic forms, such as “Biomorphic Cleopatra” from 1962. It’s difficult to imagine the bang they created in the art world of that period.

This painting comes a decade after the artist’s first one-man show in Paris. Olitski was born Jevel Demikovsky in Ukraine, several months after his biological father was executed by the Bolsheviks on political charges. He and his mother escaped to New York, where he made art from an early age, taking classes at several schools. After a period in Paris, he returned to New York and received a master’s degree in art education from NYU. He won the attention of Clement Greenberg, who remained a fan well into the 1990s. He appeared in the Venice Biennale in 1966, exhibiting along with Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, and Helen Frankenthaler.

The Houston show contains several examples of his “spray paintings” from the late 1960s, such as a highlight “High A Yellow,” a large canvas sprayed with egg yolky yellow, bands of lavender and green along the right side, and long strands/bands of cadmium yellow light, green, and orange that appear suspended from the top of the canvas. One of my favorites from the show is “Guoller” from 1969, appearing as a large black galaxy with undertones of magenta and green, the surface towards the bottom slightly built up in a speckled manner. These large color-field paintings are some of the most successful of his career, appearing before the art world became obsessed with Pop, and artists such as Olitski became somewhat less prominent.

Some of his smaller paintings from his “Baroque” period of the 1970s have more somber tones, and several of them have the feel of Oriental landscapes. By the early 1980s, Olitski is intrigued even more by the physicality of paint, as seen in the dark impasto swirls of “Creation Flood” from 1983, with it’s greenish wave highlights blended into the overall darkness. For me the least successful of his paintings come from his “High Baroque” period (1983-late 1990s). In “Lives of Angels” from 1990, the impasto acrylic swirls are built up a couple of inches in places using gels, and Olitski begins using interference paints fairly substantially to augment the reflective nature of his surfaces.

By the year 2000, when the artist was in his late 70s, he returns to vibrant color. In the 4 paintings “With Love and Disregard-Silence/Splendor/Plague,and Rapture,” his use of color truly explodes like an emotional outburst. The viewer has the sense that the artist is trying to convey his experiences of different emotional states and of nature in his own abstract visual language. For me, several of these paintings appear overworked, and the sheer multiplicity of colors weakens the integrity of the compositions as a whole.

If I had to choose one painting that stood out for me, it would be “Virtue Summons” from 1981. It’s definitely more restrained than many of his other works, with a black/mauve overall background (reminiscent of the Rothko Chapel paintings) offset by a band of salmon-colored loops, and gestural marks in greyish-blue along the right side of the canvas. Here Olitski seems not as obsessed with the physicality of the paint, and the restraint conveys a sense of quiet restraint.

The exhibit, which displays beautifully in the vast Mies van der Rohe space, is on view through May 26, 2012.