Sea, Land, Sky: Alex Katz in England
Report from… London and Margate
In keeping with Dave Hickey’s idea of art writing being commensurate with playing air guitar – “flurries of silent sympathetic gestures with nothing in their heart but the memory of the music” – then the appropriate motions for Alex Katz’s paintings would be a poetic finger-snapping ring-a-zing zing or lyric hip-wiggling. The words that could accompany Katz’s paintings include “lyrical,” “cool,” “chilled” and “rhythmic”: all modes that are equally used to describe music, and perhaps even being by the sea – the theme to one of his two shows on these shores. Recent paintings at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London followed by a compact collection in Margate’s Turner Contemporary provide a clearer view of the artist’s elegance.
At Turner Contemporary a corridor of small paintings is sandwiched by two big galleries with generally larger and more recent works. Flowers, landscapes, night themes and portraits in the corridor, spanning a forty-year period, offer a gemlike walk though various ideas in the artist’s career. This small grouping, in fact, becomes a retrospective within the exhibition demonstrating the breath of his themes but also the consistency of his vision through the years. A small early collage Sea Land Sky (1959) provides a glimpse of Katz’s reductive thinking early on. Essentially just three bands of color: a gray rectangle, a cool blue middle band, flat at the top edge and undulating at the lower edge, with a blue green bottom third implying the land. It evokes the simple, contemplative seascape that one imagines. Sea Land Sky is a good example of how Katz is able to use the bare minimum, color, line and edge in this case, to evoke place and mood.
During a talk at the gallery, Katz described the ethos of his work as having grown out of a response to the existential nature of Abstract Expressionism. In that regard, his light touch offers a strong counter solace to the action painter’s angst. Pleasure and ease, his painting seems to suggest is just as important a quality of life as the raw meditation on existence; and what better balm for raw existence than languishing by the beach. Give Me Tomorrow, a collaboration between Tate St. Ives and Margate Contemporary, two venues in English seaside towns, brings together predominantly large images of ocean themed paintings. In the large galleries at Margate, Katz’s subjects play, swim, sail, sit on the beach; they are entirely languid in their presentness, probably being caressed by a warm sea breeze. The most compelling piece actually offers very little in terms of image, or, for that matter, human beings. Beige Ocean (1999) is a painting of surf or waves. Composed of whites, creams, faint yellows, and a few diagonal brushes of paint to evoke the bubble and spray of surf and ocean motion. Here it is the faint gestures and close color tones that bring about the sense of fluid motion but also the emotional calm of the sea. This creamy painting is like a Chinese scroll offering nature for contemplation, and from that point of view, the Katz offers its viewer a foothold to being present.
Representing a place or time is not uncommon in figurative painting. But that impulse, when combined with the nature of Katz’s schematic approach (flat color, cool gesture), seems a world away from the plein air nature of, say, Impressionist painting. It is well known that his work is created through a methodical system, which involves a preparatory sketch, then a drawing, and a cartoon that helps to plan the painting. The actual painted act comes about rapidly with some improvisation, perhaps comparable to jazz where structure and improvisation work together. A twist of the hand, a moment in time, determine the tone of Katz’s efforts. His painted world though should be considered more than just luxe, calme et volupté, that hallmark of Matisse. It seems to me that the success and impact of a Katz painting depends on just this moment of presentness, what the artists himself calls painting in the “present tense.” Hence, being present, but one that is at ease, would seem to be his counter point to mere existential existence. His is a cool modernity.
Coda. The latest paintings, on view at Timothy Taylor’s in London, of flowers and portraits offers a new point of view for the octogenarian: a double portrait of the same person in a single frame. Take note that this is no Warholian repetition, rather the same model is depicted at close up and from distance, as well as from different angles. For example, a portrait of Ada, is a close-up of her glancing over her shoulder on the left, while there is a three quarter length view of her back on the right, or Chris, (2012), presents his subject nude on the left and her head painted on the right. Although apparently simple as an idea, given his conception of painting in the present tense, it subtly implies that two moments of time are presented in a singe frame. At least for this moment.
Give Me Tomorrow was at Tate St Ives, May 19 to September 23, 2012 and Turner Contemporary, Margate, October 6, 2012 to January 13, 2013. Katz’s exhibition at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, was September 5 to October 5, 2012.