Friday, 9 September 2016

Re:Maine in Light.

"It's the instantaneous light. If you get it right then you get it in the total present tense. That's what you're going for, that's eternity".

Alex Katz was born in Brooklyn in 1927. By the time he was getting going as an artist Abstract Expressionism was looming large in New York. But not for Alex. His approach was more figurative. He was seen as a precursor of Pop Art. I've even heard he's claimed that Andy Warhol ripped him off.

As a young artist at New York's Cooper Union School he was exposed to the strategies of International modernism. Summers were spent at Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine where he was encouraged to paint en plein air. Like the Impressionists. Where, to me, his heart belonged.

He fused these two academic styles and, with a reductive approach that was on nodding terms to the abstract expressionists themselves, eventually found his own style.

The Serpentine Gallery's summer show of his works looks, primarily, at his landscapes. Considering quality of light, time of day, and the changing of the seasons his works take a methodically similar approach to Cezanne's meditations on Mont Saint Victoire and Monet's not-as-biscuit-tin-as-you-might-assume Haystacks.

January 7pm (from 2007, above) and Untitled Cityscape 4 (2014, below) owe something to Ed Ruscha. A gothic mystery standing in for the dayglo LA gas stations but with the same eerie, uncanny, atmosphere pervading.

West 1 from 1998 is more of the same really. It looks a bit like an office block lit up at night which has always been a particularly evocative image for me. It wasn't all monochrome melancholy for Katz though. He worked well with colour. 2015's Cross Light 3 shows an even more direct steal from his Impressionist forebears. It's fucking huge to boot.

A year before he painted Black Brook 18. The numbers suggested he reworked these themes time and time again and literary testament confirms this. This one again flirts with abstraction without going the whole way. Such a tease.

Last year's Red House 1 seems to riff on Henri Rousseau's naive technique. I can see The Band recording an album here.

The year before that he painted Fog. A huge, milky, canvas rendered, as always with oil in linen. It's a landscape for sure but surely a landscape only an artist familiar with the work of Ad Reinhardt could paint.

There's a few portraits here to break up any perceived monotony. They're all women and they mostly have Barney Rubble dots for eyes. This is Christy. I like to imagine she lives in Red House 3 below. But that's because I really like Red House 3 and I quite like Christy too.

More seriously his portraits are, to use a slightly annoying buzzword du jour, problematic. His partner Ada crops up but he disappontingly refers to her as his 'muse'. An objectionable and objectifying noun that should surely be considered infra dig by now. My dad doesn't have a muse. I doubt your dad does. It's a far more offensive term than 'bird' or 'chick' and has only been permitted by the same sort of artistic license/excuse that allows Roman Polanski to enjoy the privilege of apologists.

Fair enough he's a man of his time and that's how they spoke then but this show purports to show him as a modern artist before his time so I think it's ok for me to suggest his language should be equally modern. I don't want to be too harsh on him as I think he's a good artist. Maybe not as influential as proposed by the Serpentine and certainly claims Warhol ripped him off seem exaggerated. Warhol may've been influenced but he's far more sui generis and that, along with his understanding of where celebrity culture was heading, is why he's far better remembered.

Alex Katz is good. He's just not THAT good.

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