Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 2016
Michael Rooks, ed. Alex Katz, This Is Now Exh. cat. Atlanta: High Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2015. 176 pp.; 100 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780300215717)
Exhibition schedule: High Museum of Art, Atlanta, June 21–September 6, 2015; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, October 16, 2015–January 31, 2016
Alex Katz, This Is Now. Installation view. Photo: Mike Jensen. Courtesy High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

Alex Katz, This Is Now offers a refreshing look at Katz’s landscapes, which, as the exhibition clearly demonstrates, have occupied the artist throughout his career. Those primarily familiar with Katz’s figurative work and portraiture, subjects for which he is arguably best known, discover another, important aspect of Katz’s oeuvre, one that does not entirely leave the figures behind, while those already knowledgeable about his landscapes enjoy compelling compositions and provocative pairings that deepen an appreciation of the artist’s achievements in this genre.

Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Michael Rooks brings together around fifty paintings, from 1972 to the present, as well as collages from the 1950s and 1960s, and a recent film in order to substantiate, as his catalogue essay articulates, Katz’s enduring connection to landscape painting, which has informed his artistic practice since his first residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1949–50. Rooks focuses on selected canvases and highlights the enduring significance of Katz’s early experience with working en plein air in Maine. This practice, requiring immediate response to and recording of the surrounding environment, helped solidify the artist’s dedication to painting and shaped his creative process and his commitment, even in the studio, to dealing with—as Rooks explores in wall text, catalogue essay, and the exhibition—Katz’s own approach to “‘the present tense’” (15).

The exhibition is arranged mostly chronologically, yet some thematic galleries interrupt the temporal flow to offer collections of canvases on specific subjects: woodlands (near the beginning), close-ups of flowers and foliage (in the middle), and rivers and coasts (near the end). The early collages, enthralling in their economy of form and tensions between representation and abstraction, the latter a characteristic of Katz’s art throughout his career, are clearly divided from the rest of the exhibition, at the entrance and on the opposite side of the introductory wall text from the paintings, a meaningful placement that acknowledges both differences and similarities. These works on paper anticipate the effects of later paintings. Landscape elements exceed the outer edges, as if anticipating large canvases that seem to extend beyond their confines and solicit imaginative projection (or absorption) into the represented scenes. Accretions and overlaps approximate close-up studies of flowers or foliage that incite physical engagement with textural paint. The collages with figures illustrate their interactions with various natural environments that the later canvases invite in more metaphorical terms. Subjects parallel early paintings of boating and picnics, examples of which hang nearby, and also reference the New England coast, an enduring subject of Katz’s paintings.

The second gallery is the most visually stunning of the show. The works shift to larger scales, and repeated motifs create a rhythm of complements and contrasts. This room is arguably the most important for local audiences as it contextualizes the High’s Winter Landscape 2 (2007) within related canvases of bare trees and perched birds. It reverberates with linear excitement, only slightly dulled by the almost monochromatic gray and black tones that pervade most of the paintings (two are punctuated by the highly saturated colors, purples and reds, within the two portraits of the artist’s wife, Ada, who appears within or against snowy branches in Central Park). These works suggest seriality and foreground process, which Rooks clearly underscores within and outside the exhibition. In a nearby video gallery, the film 5 Hours (1996) by the artist’s son, Vincent Katz, and daughter-in-law, Vivien Bittencourt, shows the progression of January 3 (1993) and confirms the complex mixture of spontaneity and planning that the artist employs. Katz organizes the composition in advance, yet his brushwork has a quick and confident movement as he places birds and adds branches, often moving with strokes that drag the still-wet gray paint of the light sky across and into the dark trunks; he creates a linearity, at once crisp and subtle, that is both highly suggestive of and quite distinct from the clarity of lines that compose the scaffolding of the trees and the contours of Ada’s face and features. This canvas, when experienced through the film, is a remarkable study in Katz’s decision making.

The organization of the exhibition expresses aspects of Rooks’s distinctive curatorial approach. He intentionally embeds strong sight lines, guiding viewers through the space and suggesting compositional and/or conceptual connections (or convergences). While the canvases within the woodlands gallery seem to ricochet with formal qualities and subject matter, other moments in the exhibition stage visual tensions and transitions. The most stunning areas of the show occur at one spot near the end. As viewers experience Sunset (1987), Dawn 3 (1995), and Sunset 1 (2008) in succession in a single gallery—all silhouettes of trees against distant skies, but with distinct palettes (rich vermilion and black; subtle grays; icy blue and luminous orange)—they also glimpse Sunset 3 (2008) at the entrance to an adjacent gallery. This almost identical image establishes visual continuity and beckons toward a side room with small studies from the Black Brook (1988–90; 2001) series and other scenes of Maine. At the same spot, but along a transverse axis, are two large paintings—10:30 a.m. (2006) and Black Brook 15 (1999)—that confront one another across adjacent galleries. Both compositions capture the play of light on clusters of tree trunks. Their foregrounds and backgrounds dissolve into one another as the distribution of colors and strokes, though quite different in each, generate similarly rhythmic, vertical repetitions in seemingly identical scenes. Only the darker tones and more fluid paint delineate its different subject: originally horizontal rather than vertical, it is the water’s reflection of the woodland scene.

The exhibition’s wall texts and object labels distill many of the ideas in the catalogue, which presents a variety of viewpoints on Katz’s painting. Rooks tracks what Katz describes as “the flash of perception” (17) and examines the ways in which his paintings are emotive expressions of quick observations, along with the ways they are “felt and perceived in the ‘present tense’” by artist and viewer alike (introductory wall text). As he elaborates in the catalogue:

His signature style, most commonly associated with portraits and figures, is immediately recognizable in the landscapes by its reductive qualities: flattened planes of color; telescoped, shallow pictorial space; and lean, reductive but acutely descriptive lines. These qualities provided Katz the structural components of a visual language with which he ultimately set out to communicate the necessary information required to describe the phenomenon of perception in the landscape, attempting to convey the appearances of things as they are immediately felt and perceived. (17)

The emotional qualities, prevalent and somewhat unacknowledged in the literature on the artist’s work, are Rooks’s primary focus in his essay, and perhaps his greatest contribution to the discourse on Katz’s art. As he concludes, “There is a reconciliation with the soul in Katz’s landscape paintings—a submission to it rather than a lingering, lugubrious sentimentality. Instead, it is the witnessing of time passing, providing a context for the manifestation of emotion in an aesthetic experience of his work” (19). Art critic Margaret Graham’s contribution to the catalogue addresses the critical commentary on Katz’s oeuvre, established in early characterizations of his position between realism and abstraction, and offers insightful analyses of select works in, and the general subject of, the show. At the same time, her incisive critiques do not assert a facile definition of Katz’s landscapes but instead complicate this aspect of his practice:

If Katz’s landscape paintings excel at one thing, it is in challenging the notion that they are, in fact, landscapes at all. They declare their painterliness with aplomb but call every other attempt to classify them into question. Within the confines of each canvas, the lines between landscape, portraiture, genre, and still life run thin, categories overlapping or knocking up against one another in much the same way that the neat, contour-less planes of color are wont to do. (25)

Contemporary painter David Salle crafts an essay that is as eloquent and exacting as it is entertaining, especially for those who enjoy tales concerning the postwar art market and artists’ culture and comparative allusions to modern masters. With a story that rehearses the origin of Jasper Johns’s sculpture Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) (1960) from Willem de Kooning’s famous comment about Leo Castelli’s ability to sell a couple of beer cans and in language that evokes the very imagery of the paintings on which he focuses, primarily the Black Brook series and Rocks 1 (2011), Salle extols Katz’s characteristic, painterly style. Writing about Katz’s two Rocks paintings, he concludes:

These rocks aren’t doing much, just breaking up the horizon line. And yet Katz somehow makes them pictorial, even dramatic. They are pure form. . . . Once again, Katz lays out a fundamental lesson: the what is transformed, re-constituted by the how. When I first saw these humble and challenging paintings in Katz’s studio . . . I was jolted by their plainness, their pared-down simplicity. Then a thought, largely unbidden, came to me: “I’ll bet the son-of-a-bitch can even make a painting of a couple of rocks!” And so he has. (41; emphasis in original)

Helping to round out the catalogue, John Godfrey and Vincent Katz produce poetic compositions that likewise complement the artist’s visual language.

The exhibition and its catalogue explore and underscore relationships within Katz’s painting in ways that are diverse, didactic, and delightful, bolstering the virtuosity and creativity of Katz’s distinct vision. The exhibition’s title emphasizes materiality and temporality, the immediacy of Katz’s painting, and the continued currency of his style. Motifs appear and reappear, moving among media, through various scales, into abstraction and serial imagery, repetition within repetition. The effect is not monotonous. Instead, the accretion of similar examples and the accumulation of lines, shapes, and textures create dynamism within and among the canvases, enriching and enlivening, both in the visual experience of the works and for an understanding of Katz’s commitment to landscape.

Katherine Smith
Associate Professor of Art History, Agnes Scott College