Alex Katz: New Paintings and Sculptures
On ViewGavin Brown’s Enterprise
April 28 – August 3, 2019
At a certain point in a career as long and accomplished as Alex Katz’s, one hopefully reckons to ask if that artist has begun to transcend themselves: where they become, in effect, “more themselves” (arguably a form of inner transcendence) or simply a representation of such. Katz, who’ll celebrate his 92nd birthday in July, has staked out a long settled stylistic position as a painter. Because of this, it could be said that he is only really answerable to his own mind. He might easily abandon himself to the entitled caprice of “the master” or slide into solipsistic repetition of past innovation. Instead, in the eminently cool painterly poker game he’s played opposite himself for over 60 years, he’s constantly upped the ante on his “lucky” hand: his strategic success in capturing, in his words, “the immediate present” suffused with “quick light.”
His most recent show is split between figural work and landscapes. A series of dancing female nudes, set on a fairly consistent lime green background on the first floor of the gallery, represents what Katz has titled his “Homage to Degas” series (all dated 2018). It seems appropriate for the artist to reference Degas, in that his own depictions of figural groupings, like Degas’s, have tended to be set in oblique relation to the picture plane. Both Katz and Degas have shared an acute awareness of photographically inspired camera angles and cropping to heighten diagonal tension and lateral balance in their compositions. Katz, however, is the more “classical” of the two in the sense that he has also often chosen the full frontal view, where the subject aligns, almost confrontationally, parallel with the picture plane. This flipping back and forth between the archaically tectonic and the photographically oblique has been one of Katz’s signature strategies for keeping his familiar representational object matter (mostly family, friends, lived- in landscapes) abstractly engaging and renewed. In his depiction of nude female dancers he privileges the straight on approach, lending the series, taken as a whole, a frieze-like quality. For example, Homage to Degas 6 presents simultaneously as a stylistic quotation from both an 18th Dynasty Egyptian processional stele and the sequential progression of an Edward Muybridge photograph of human locomotion. Flipping again more toward the naturalistic are Homage to Degas (10 and 16) in which a “split/screen” composition catches the model in a similar stretching pose combined with a more formal dance pose: effectively a “before and during” parallax view. In Homage to Degas (2, 5 and 7) one sees a more direct relation to how Degas himself radically cropped his dancer’s poses to precariously triangulate the compositional proportions between figure and ground, thereby lending a visual analog to the poise and balance of the model. With Homage to Degas 14, Katz strikes a complex balance between a series of five “jump-cuts,” the nude model’s torqueing progress, and the glancing light off of her back and side which sets up a complementary rhythm of its own. The artist has a long association with dance, from his earliest collaborations and paintings (beginning circa 1960) with Paul Taylor up to more recent work such as his “Face The Music” series (circa 2010-11). The “Homage to Degas” series, therefore, does represent a continuation of that interest, yet their compositional intervals are much more truncated and compressed. The resultant staccato rhythms induce a more urgent immanence.
There is also a sculptural aspect to this show of mostly painting with the inclusion of a series of cut-out sculptures which reprise another long standing format for the artist. These are mostly female figures related to the Homage to Degas series, but also include a few headshot portraits: including one of the artist’s wife Ada, and another of a male and female couple in conversational face off . All are quite flat and fabricated in mirrored stainless steel. These newly minted iterations of past Katzian figural tropes help to figuratively (and literally) ground the show in their see through solidity. Like pop-up drawings, they are reminiscent of the “cartoons,” or pierced and then pounced sketches the artist typically employs to get an image onto a canvas before commencing to paint.
Katz deepens the sense of an internal transcendence—his “more self”—in the large scale landscapes on display on the 4th and 2nd floors of the gallery. Two canvases in particular stand out in this respect. Each measuring a monumental 8 by 18 feet, Twilight and Twilight 2, (both 2018) ostensibly present deep wood thickets backlit by crepuscular greys and reds respectively. These paintings represent a real leap by Katz into a potentially treacherous conceptual tangle for an artist who has long maintained a razor’s edge relation between representational subjects and their cool painterly translation. Here his object matter coalesces into pure, hot, painterly energy. Dense overlapping and recursive brushstrokes held in pictorial suspension by dark, contra- leaning verticals in Twilight 2 enact similarly the allover intensity and internal tension of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles (1952). Katz’s brushstroke, especially in the last decade, has been possessed of a certain kind of sumi-e spirit: that Japanese tradition of black ink painting related to calligraphy that favors the spontaneously beautiful brushstroke, typically tied to natural subjects yet gained from years of rigorous academic study. This type of one- to- one relationship between nature and its spontaneous depiction is more readily seen in a painting like Crosslight (2019) in which gently bending trees seem traced out almost effortlessly by light green and white brushstrokes descending light on a dark ground. While in Twilight and Twilight 2 one can still recognize Katz’s characteristic technical facility in delineating a pine bough or a birch sapling with such summary grace, there wells up in these particular works a knotty impatience which feels quite different. Another imposing work on the 4th floor, a full 10 by 14.5 feet in dimension, is Blue Night (2018). In it a hulking mass of landscape looms against a deep blue ground, giving the impression of a summit of insurmountable indeterminacy. It would be logical to conjecture Katz’s advanced age as corollary to both the subjects (twilight, night) and the execution (urgent, unbound) of these paintings but that would be too summary a conclusion. More accurate is the sense that the immediate present for this “cool” artist has become more immediate. It is this “more immediate” that comprises the artist’s transcendence: a consolidation of an inner artistic self, one more finely attuned to the electric charge of painterly immanence. “Fast light,” after all, can be taken as a metaphor for an acceleration of synaptic conductivity. The painterly rules that Katz has, with nervy determination, set up for himself over many years (and which have served him so well) seem, with these works, on the verge of giddy collapse into uncircumscribed experience. The hot evidence of the artist’s own inexorable presence (his transcendent “nature”) seethes within these latter three canvases. They are no longer elegant amalgams of Katzian givens. They are the artist sacrificing these, and in the process giving way, not to any heroic departure, but to a matter of fact return to painting in itself.
- Matthew Buckley Smith, excerpt from The Dark Woods, from Dirge for an Imaginary World Able Muse Press, 2011.