He still paints with the same astonishing sensitivity of touch, athleticism, and power of focus that he has always has.
We are truly fortunate to see this exhibition of Alex Katz’s new paintings, all begun last summer and completed late last year, at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. We have the very rare opportunity to see the work of a master, nurtured by fifty years of painting, at the height of his powers.
Now in his seventies, the artist is as hearty and energetic as a man thirty years younger. He still paints with the same astonishing sensitivity of touch, athleticism, and power of focus that he has always has. (Katz’s enormous power of concentration on a single painting, a series of paintings, and on the nature of his art itself has been too little remarked upon). And yet we also see in this exhibition the increased sense of freedom and of painterly risk-taking that age and life-long experience have brought to the artist. When I had the opportunity to see these paints in Katz’s studio before they left for Paris, Alex himself commented that he was now capable of things would have been impossible ten years earlier.
These paintings present an almost unbelievable level of artistic achievement: there is the magic of Katz’s paintbrush, sometimes expressionistic, sometimes magically light of touch, his staggeringly well-tuned color, and his compositions that are at once full of movement and in perfect equilibrium. Yet our pleasure in these paintings is conjoined with an even more profound pleasure: to witness, through the paintings, a man who embodies both youth and age, who has lived well and kept true to his own ethos, and who has stayed open to experience throughout his life. This is a rare human achievement. It is why I don’t hesitate to call Alex Katz a master, not in the out-of-favor European sense of the term, but in the Asian sense—a person who has learned so much about his practice that he can pursue it with the same sense of freedom as the initiate.
The paintings in this exhibition have been well selected. In fact, here for the first time, according to Alex himself, are displayed together in one space a complete set of the three small, medium, and large paintings from one motif that Katz has characteristically used for thirty years to develop all of his landscape compositions. Golden Fields #1, #2, and #3 are an example of this method of working. The art world is indeed a strange place. Imagine that, over thirty years, not one of these series of three, so crucial to understanding Katz’s thinking, has ever been seen together.
Admittedly Alex says he was little concerned about exhibiting the series as ensembles. To him it is the last large painting that is the final achievement and the culmination of what has occurred in the two preparatory works. The final painting is almost always ten feet in length or in height. Golden Fields #3, specifically, is eight by ten feet (244 by 305cm). Like all of Katz’s large landscape paintings, it is expansive and spontaneous, yet contains nuances of light, color, and composition of a subtlety that is beyond analysis. In works such as this, Katz, like his near contemporary Robert Ryman, is furthering Pollock’s project to create great “open” (this is Katz’s word) paintings, and to bring Pollock’s project into the present.
Yet to my eye, Golden Fields #1 and #2 are no less interesting. In particular, #1 puts on display Katz’s fast-paced brush strokes at their most musical. The painter moves through the painting as a solo dancer uses the stage. In this regard, Gray and Yellow #1, also in the exhibition, is perhaps even more remarkable. The rhythms of the strokes are pure Mozart. The “difficult” harmony of gray-green and pale yellow yields the most sublime light. The composition explodes outward from the middle, yet at the same time creates a great inward vortex of space toward the center.
Then there are the three beach paintings, Maine Beach, Lincoln Beach, and the eight by sixteen foot (244 by488 cm) Beach Stop. Katz has been painting people by the water for forty years. For him, the shore has always been a site of relaxation and informal human sociability. It is also an ennobling place, where the austere horizontality of land and sea and the luminosity of light on water dignify human presence.
It can also be readily observed that Katz, in his beach paintings, has chronicled the massive middle-class migration to the shores that has been taking place since he was a young man in the ‘50’s. The three paintings in this exhibition all demonstrate the artist’s keen eye for seaside sociology. Yet somehow Katz himself has never seemed to me to be one of these water-bound immigrants. His sensitivity to the sensory richness of the coast-- its light, temperature, and winds-- is too great, and marks him somehow as a native to this environment. Katz seems to have his beaches, marshes, and the ocean beyond them, at the center of his being.
I’ve never known how to explain this. Biographies of the artist usually tell us that he was born in New York City, or sometimes specifically in the borough of Queens. But when I enquired, Alex told me that he had spent his childhood specifically in the quiet neighborhood of St. Albans, Queens, located just a couple miles from the southern edge of the borough, where the city meets the Atlantic Ocean in an light-filled terrain of salt marshes, small islands, and beaches. It is easy to imagine this landscape imprinted on the artist’s mind as a child. The St. Albans story explains to me what I have always thought to be the Venetian character of Katz’s work, and specifically his affinity to Veronese and Veronese’s luminosity, his stylishness, and his expansiveness.
In Maine Beach and Lincoln Beach, Katz has struck out into unfamiliar territory. The people are small in scale—strangers observed from a distance. They are locked into the landscape, quite unlike the classic Katz painting in which the artist’s friends, painted simply and heroically, dominate the setting. In both paintings, Katz has modeled the figures solidly and volumetrically, a departure from his previous work. He has crafted the compositions using both photographs of the beach (to give the sense of “the whole beach,” in Katz’s words) and studies of the figures drawn from life. Yet these two sober, sturdy paintings seem to me almost outrageously eclectic, tinted by a veritable reverie of references as the artist whispers the names of his predecessors: the foreground rocks and long brown shadows saying Mardsen Heartley, the blunt handling and bright swatches of color in the figures perhaps Edward Hopper, and the ringing blue sea and sky, Milton Avery.
Lastly, there is Beach Stop, the most recent of Katz’s many epic multi-figure canvasses, a painting whose structural complexity also seems at a new level of attainment. Like a great Veronese, the overall effect is rhythmic and musical. Yet this musical legibility is the result of harnessing together innumerable smaller rhythms and counter-rhythms of color and form. To me, as a painter, this level of concentrated painterly intelligence is simply astonishing. Can I explain how it feels? Imagine looking at the notebook calculations of a leading particle physicist… or emulating a Pete Sampras serve. “How does he do it?” is all that I can say..
(PETER HALLEY 2002)