Wednesday, October 1st, 2003

Alex Katz

Alex Katz: Flowers & Landscapes
32 E 57th Street, at Madison Avenue, 212 421 3292
until November 8.

Alex Katz: Cartoon
Peter Blum
99 Wooster Street, between Prince and Spring Streets, 212 343 0441
until November 15

Alex Katz Aqua Sweatshirt 1983 graphite and charcoal on paper, 69-7/8 x 49-3/4 inches courtesy Peter Blum, New York
Alex Katz, Aqua Sweatshirt 1983 graphite and charcoal on paper, 69-7/8 x 49-3/4 inches courtesy Peter Blum, New York

The painter Alex Katz, now 50 years into his career, is a kind of artist that only comes along every hundred years or so. He’s in a line with the 18th Century’s Francois Boucher and the 19th Century’s Pierre-Auguste Renoir, artists who are authoritative painters within a world view that they established early in their careers. Theirs is a distinctive, sensual world that deftly apotheosizes what is considered “gracious living” by the dominant class of the period. Boucher’s art centered itself around the boudoir fantasies of the nobility. Renoir updated some of Boucher’s themes, but reflected the rise of the bourgeois, producing many picnics and maternal domestic scenes among his abundant paintings of nudes.

Katz concentrates mainly on images of what New Yorkers are or aspires to be: attractive, quasi-bohemian materialists. Katz paints us in our urban milieu or out of town in verdant summertime scenes. Like his predecessors, Katz is a tough-minded poet and consummate professional with an intellectual energy that rivals the stamina of an athlete. Like them, he continues to find interesting problems in his chosen project. There is continuity in the high quality of the work.

Katz’s landscapes are sometimes unpopulated. In Alex Katz: Flowers and Landscapes a dozen of these very large paintings are on exhibition at Pace Wildenstein gallery uptown. In the painting “Roses on Blue” the odd red shapes of the flowers rush at you like punchy kisses. Katz has an inimitable New York aplomb that couples brute elegance with surprising sweetness. His surfaces are just brushy enough that the paint has a presence, a physical forthrightness that supports the slight, everyday aspect of the imagery. This attachment to the moment as it passes touches on another unique aspect of this artist: though a straight man, he had no bones about adapting the casual, offhand sensibility of the primarily gay New York School of poets. This was in the fifties, a time when the dominant painting ethos was myth-mongering and macho.

Downtown at Peter Blum gallery an incidentally simultaneous exhibition of Alex Katz: Cartoons, drawings that were used to transfer an image to canvas, contain much of interest as well. Here, in a group of works never intended for exhibition, (Katz says he found them under his bed) the artist looks like an old master. The sepia-toned dustings surrounding the linear figuration hearken back to Boucher’s charcoal and red-penciled drawings, a show of which, also incidentally just opened at the Frick.