Time Stands Still: Alex Katz Small Paintings
Alex Katz: Small Paintings 1987-2013 at Peter Blum Gallery
September 19 to November 2, 2013
20 West 57th Street, between 5th and 6th avenues
New York City, 212-244-6055
This exhibition comprises 22 paintings, all oil on board, none of which is larger than 12 x 16 inches. The earliest dates from 1987, the latest from this year. The paintings have been equally spaced and hung at the same height, thus forming a freeze of differently oriented and proportioned images around the three main walls of the gallery and a section of wall by the gallery desk. Because the paintings are both very focused and fragmentary, they can be seen as both complete in themselves – time stilled – and as a sequence of moments, hours or years apart.
That portraits appear at intervals (or in one place together as a group) only enhances the impression of a flow of events unfolding as much as images of things remembered from the past. What amounts to fragments of life are presented at varying degrees of proximity and distance: figures and heads, both partial and complete; flowers, grouped or isolated; trees reflected, next to each other, or singular, but always seen in sections and not whole, however complete they are as animage.
The gallery space – relatively large to the modestly-scaled works — comes into the service of the paintings when sub groupings take on special significance. This somewhat depends on how close to the paintings one is standing, but to be close enough to a wall to see, say, only four paintings, a figure some flowers and a tree, is to allow a sequence to make a separate and partial narrative.
Though these paintings were made outside the artist’s studio, and as studies for larger scale works, they are never the less independent works that evince a direct apprehension of what is seen – as painting. The resulting studio paintings retain a freshness and surprise away from the subject as successfully as the paintings do here in front of it.
Homage to Monet 5, (2009), and Elizabeth, (2012) share a similar vocabulary of shape. Both the green lily leaves of Homage and the white, wide-brimmed hat of Elizabeth create flat modulated areas that overlap and twist. The close up, cropped views, and the economic concentrated color, enunciate two kinds of cool: that of, respectively, a surface of dark water on which in the same plane are the sharp green and white of floating plants, in the landscape painting, and of pale protective shade and sun glasses under a hot clear blue sky, in the portrait. Night Light, (2005) and White Boat, (2008) capture the different lights of day and night. A garage and its artificial lighting sit centrally amongst the grays of a moonlit field, rapid brush strokes animate and delineate the surrounding tonal shifts of this night time scene, and the bitter yellow edge of the building intensifying the brightness of electric light isolated by near darkness.
Seen in broad daylight, White Boat is an empty but not uneventful view of an upturned boat on a dune side. The sky is subtly streaked a darker blue toward the top of the painting, andthe yellow of the dune dappled green at the bottom edge. The result is deep pictorial space: a path, a short diagonal at the right hand edge, leads over the horizon, doubling the white diagonal of the boat below, and heightening curiosity about what lies beyond.
As concise as any painting here, Black Brook, (1989) describes the complex play of reflections and feel of water next to a bank of grass. The fractured image of a line of trees caught in the water simultaneously mirrors and moves patches of light, now manifest as the turning and changing pressure of a brush carrying browns, grays and creams. In another view of trees, Gold and Black, (1993), this time vertically aligned along a narrow horizontal, warm void of golden sky, the looking is made upward rather than downward as in Black Brook. Katz’s directions of gaze and establishing of distances to what is seen never allow us to forget the selectivity and subjectivity of seeing and recording, whether as a memory or as a painting. Within each of these small paintings scale and placement are constantly inventive and pitch perfect, the color sophisticated and direct and the surface consistently attentive to detail, with accurate but never pedantic brush work.