Jules Demikovsky was born on 27 March 1922 in Snovsk (now Shchors), Ukraine. In 1923 his family emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Brooklyn, New York. In 1940 he enrolled at the National Academy of Design, New York, to study painting. He also attended evening classes in sculpture at the Beaux Arts Institute. Drafted into the army in 1942, he took American citizenship and also his stepfather's name 'Olitsky'. After his discharge from the army, he briefly studied sculpture at the Educational Alliance, New York, in 1947 and then, in 1949, travelled to Paris where he studied for a short time in the studio of Ossip Zadkine. He held his first solo show at Galerie Huit, Paris, in 1951, before returning to New York. From 1952 to 1955 he studied art education at New York University, serving as a curator at the New York University Art Education Gallery until 1956. In that year he joined the faculty of Long Island University, becoming associate professor and chairman of the Fine Arts Department, and remained there until 1963. His first solo exhibition in the United States was held in 1958 at the Zodiac Gallery, New York, where his name was spelt 'Olitski', a European spelling which the artist has retained.

In 1964 Olitski began to apply colour with rollers and, by the end of the year, was using a spray gun. He showed his paintings at Kasmin Gallery, London, and at Galerie Lawrence, Paris. Also in 1964 he was selected by Clement Greenberg to participate in the exhibition Post-painterly Abstraction at Los Angeles County Museum. The following year Olitski, together with Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella, was selected by Michael Fried for the exhibition Three American painters at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University. In 1966 he represented the United States at the Venice biennale, together with Helen Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein and Noland. His first solo exhibition in a museum was arranged by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, in 1967. In the late 1960s Olitski began to make sculptures using coloured aluminium and, later, sheet steel. In 1973 a retrospective exhibition was organised by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which toured to three other museums in the United States. From the late 1970s, the artist worked with thick, textured paint and a muted monochrome palette. In 2000 the exhibition Five decades of Jules Olitski was held in Naples, Florida, and other venues. Olitski worked in Florida and New Hampshire until his death in New York City on 4 February 2007.