New YorkWhitney Museum
May 2 – June 13, 2015
The recent re-installation of paintings at the new Whitney Museum provides a natural context for Alex Katz’s show of thirteen large landscape paintings at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, and inspires reflection on the combination of European modernism with indigenous tendencies ranging from regionalism to the sublime in American landscape painting. Katz’s paintings extend his production of flat, public-scaled images, but with a sense of rootedness in place that evokes his connections to home, to predecessors like Avery, O’Keeffe, and Hopper—a sense of the local, featuring solidly constructed forms.
Katz’s career spans more than six decades, arising in the fertile postwar culture of painting and poetry that included Frank O’Hara and Fairfield Porter. Beginning with a fresh take on everyday modernity, he rejected Porter’s European influences along with the romantic legacy of Abstract Expressionism, cultivating a lighter, more informal stance—a “painter of modern life” indebted to the casual spontaneity and flatness of photography. His attention to the aspects of things extended to outdoor work from nature in Maine, understood less as wilderness than as an extension of the urban social scene, much as the Impressionists had embraced scenes of leisure a century earlier.
Over the years, Katz has refined the idiom of plein air painting in the way some poets have developed favored forms like the sonnet. While avoiding modernist styles, he’s made good use of modernist discipline, combining his immediate sensory response to nature with a more distanced attention to flat shapes and the constraints of the frame. Translating his early studies into small collages prepared the way for their enlargement to over ten feet, which, if anything, only inspired further abbreviation and condensation, exposing his process of painting to public scrutiny. Here, two versions of Night House (2013), nearly identical save for the tone of the sky, highlight the artifice of his carefully calibrated working process, while Fog (2014) tests the limits of visibility. Katz calculates just how much information we need, as though keenly aware of how little we normally focus on objects in our field of vision and how lack of detail can enhance a sense of familiarity.
The modest houses featured in several works here are treated with a balance of bold masses and descriptive detail—set on a road sweeping back into space among sculptural juxtapositions of light and shade in Slab City 2 (2013), while the elemental Red House 4 (2013) stares back at us from a monumental cushion of trees, crowned by gesturing pines, with just enough brushed-in blades of grass to establish the foreground lawn. More stripped-down, in the manner of Katz’s familiar flattened style, is 12:30 pm 2 (2014): three tree trunks, syncopated by three smaller ones, stand against a band of yellow space, surmounted by a casually brushed in canopy of foliage. Katz achieves a sort of visual haiku in 4 pm (2014)—bending branches that partially occlude a distant shore, a lone house, and a sun glowing through haze combine to root us in a lived place and time.
Katz’s condensation and technical refinement have something in common with Georgia O’Keeffe. While she zooms in like a photographer, opening up the depth and density of the phenomenal world with intimations of the cosmic and sublime, Katz enlarges his small studies, yet both can arrive at a surreal stylization, a sort of illusionistic abstraction. Katz combines improvisatory calligraphy with slick technique in the curious clouds of Untitled Landscape 1 (2014). The floating forms of Black Brook 18 (2014) hark back to Arthur Dove’s more immediate distillations of natural forms, but Katz’s more self-conscious technique takes him in the direction of Japanese animation, or of David Hockney’s enlarged iPad paintings.
The eccentric diagonal horizon of Untitled Landscape 1 also recalls the stylized landscapes of Wayne Thiebaud, a West Coast contemporary who’s been painting longer than Katz. Like Katz, Thiebaud elevates vernacular illustration through formal simplification, although Thiebaud seems increasingly impatient with technical craftsmanship. In his recent mountain landscapes he transforms paint more directly, a practice Katz only indulges on a smaller scale.
Considering the Whitney show, Jerry Saltz speculated that modernism never really took hold in America—that the strongest American artists have remained essentially isolated in their land. In the darkly dramatic Untitled Cityscape 5 (2014), which evokes Paul Strand’s famous photograph of Wall Street combined with one of Ed Ruscha’s industrial boulevards, Katz moves into the stark realm of Edward Hopper, who, like Katz, based his work on direct observation but developed his paintings in the studio. Hopper resisted the currents of modernism that surrounded him during his early study in Paris. Here, Katz imposes a Hopper-like sense of isolation that also lurks in the vacant stares of his houses.
Katz has remarked that at Cooper Union he studied “provincial modernism,” and at Skowhegan “provincial regionalism;” it’s striking how closely he’s hewn to his origins. The works shown here seem to accept the isolation implicit in these familiar terms and to recognize in their fusion something not simply provincial but central to the American experience.
Hearne Pardee is an artist and writer based in New York and California, where he teaches at the University of California, Davis.