June 17, 2015

Alex Katz: The Expansive Landscape

4 PM, 2014; oil on linen, 144 x 108 in.

Alex Katz's landscape paintings are a paradox: as large as they are, they seem intimate; they portray ordinary views, yet are surprising and extraordinary. This feeling I had while seeing Katz's exhibition at Gavin Brown's Enterprise reminded me of a favorite quote from the writer Jean Rhys, from David Plante's book Difficult Women:
I think what one should do is write in an ordinary way and make the writing seem extraordinary. One should write, too, about what is ordinary, and see the extraordinary behind it. 
Katz's simple titles––a time of day, a description of place––tell of noticing something marvelous within an everyday world. It was a stunning experience to see the painting 4 PM, glistening on a back wall, seen through doorways.  The painting seemed as alive, and its subject as real, as the bars of light cast onto the polished floor: a hazy sun, leaves back lit, flickering in moving air.

4 PM detail

Another paradox: the brushwork is loose and painterly, yet conveys the specifics of light and place.

12:30 PM 2, 2014; oil on linen, 108 x 132 in.

At midday the light is very different from later afternoon. Through a wall of trees is a bright yellow band (flowering grasses?); a sweep of grass leads up to them.

12:30 PM 2 detail

The leaves are painted as fluid masses of varied greens, the tree trunks vertical striations of color.

Black Brook 18, 2014; oil on linen, 96 x 120 in.

This painting is compelling for a very-little-there-ness that is rich in effect. Brilliant yellow greens bounce off a dark expanse of water.

Black Brook 18 detail

There is such economy in the marks of the brush, and such grace. I think that one thing that makes the viewing of these paintings an intimate experience is the pleasure in walking up to them and getting an almost physical sense of paint as object, paint as light.

Fog, 2014; oil on linen, 108 x 216 in.

With Fog, Katz painted a very different landscape, one barely visible.

Fog detail

To convey trees lost in mists, he used broad strokes of the brush with very little detail. It is a haiku of a painting.

Untitled Landscape 1, 2014; oil on linen, 96 x 120 in.

A hillside is shadowed against a bright sky with clouds shaped like scudding raindrops. The black hill is subtly painted with variations of tone on its surface.

Untitled Landscape 1 detail

A long lifetime of painting––Katz is 88––has led to a fresh assuredness in making images.

Night House 1, 2013; oil on linen, 126 x 96 in. 

There are also paintings of night: a house dwarfed by trees is welcoming with warm light pouring forth.

Untitled Cityscape 5, 2014; oil on linen, 108 x 84 in. 

In a dark city a beautifully modulated gray sky is lit by a band and triangular shapes of light. It floats above a dense building, drawn on the opposing diagonal to the light band. It's a mood very different from the wooded dark.

Untitled Cityscape 5 detail

The gray sky is translucent because of the way the color is laid on the canvas. A lit window anchors the painting at the lower right, and is a quiet counterpoint to the bright areas of sky. The dark mass of building has weight even though it is flatly painted.

Luna Park, 1960; oil on masonite, 40 x 30 in.

From this early, relatively small painting, we can see that Katz's approach to the landscape hasn't changed that much over the years, although his primary focus was for many years on the figure. As good as those figure paintings are, there was a coolness in his approach; his concern with "style" put them at something of an emotional remove. The landscapes, though, are full of poetic sentiment: of beauty, of air and light, of memory, of tenderness.


  1. A wonderful review you have done here, Altoon. A succinct painter's interpretation of a painter's painter, thank you.

  2. Delighted to see this review. Loved the term, "a Haiku of a painting". Indeed, it was a Haiku of a show, a stunning one.

  3. wonderful review, Altoon - the paintings look beautiful

  4. Ditto to all the above.
    I wonder about technique.
    That first is so photographic, I suppose the painter used projection technology of one sort or another, camera obscura-style, and stripped-away unnecessary stuff.
    Ya gotta love it....and I am sure the large size packs a wallop!

  5. Thanks for reading, and for the comments.
    JBS: Katz works from small studies done on site, which are enlarged onto a big canvas. He used to use a grid, but I'm not sure how the transfer is done. The colors are mixed from the study and he paints directly on the canvas in one day, wet paint into wet. This is very hands-on painting, not technology.

  6. Hello Altoon Sultan, I am an art student and thank you for this information about the picture at Serpentine exhibition but I've got one picture that I am desperate to find the information is the Ada 2015 if you could share with me please, I need it this Friday for my final essay. Thank you in advance.