Sunday Survey of Alex Katz: Black and White
"I like going from black and white to color, and color to black and white." - Alex Katz
Alex Katz's quote is a defining statement about his own work process, and serves as a guide on a walk through the Alex Katz: Black and White exhibit on display at the Tampa Museum of Art. The survey exhibition covers the years from the late 1960's through the present.
The title could easily be Black and White with Color, but pay close attention to the black and white works as there you will see beautiful details of Katz's work, though how can you not be drawn to his exquisite color choices? Bottom line, there is something for everyone in this accessible show.
Each gallery highlights the different ways he depicted people in portraiture throughout his career. Besides the changes in his portraiture, the show labels detail the different color of ink he uses. In one image, Swamp Maple, he uses a multitude of ink colors; eventully as his work progresses over the years he narrows it down to simply black ink. Reading the labels on the black and white images details this interesting part of his process.
Ada, his wife and primary muse, appears throughout the show. They met in the 1950's and over time he has captured her in various activities. Whether posing directly for him or engaging with casual activities with friends, Katz always returns to Ada as his prime subject. You will see her regularly as you continue through the galleries.
There are pops of color in artworks throughout the room, which serve to emphasize his range and the details in artwork. As you read in the opening quote, Katz likes to go from black and white to color, and back again. He features that process in many of his series of prints. The artworks pictured above show the relationship between his process as described by Tampa Museum of Art curator Joanna Robotham: "Katz generally works from a simple drawing or sketch, moving to a small painting, and that small painting will often and most likely manifest into a larger painting. If he feels happy with that imagery, or feels that it is successful, he will usually embark on a print edition. The print edition will start in color, from there he may push the image even more. Often it is in black in white to see if he can take it even further. Further may be the details in the lines he can make within that image. He has stated he has the most room to experimentent in black and white and considers black and white to be the final image. It is always about essentially returning to black and white for him."
In this series, if you are viewing the work in person and look very closely, you can see traces of the brushwork, and its slight variations. On a thumbnail, or photo, you don’t see all the detail an artist has put in the work, the attention Katz has paid to the flat surface and how that flat surface is going to capture light. It is interesting to see how he accomplishes this with minimal gestures. The way he has shown light is not just the background, but the detail in the swimsuit ( which appears almost three dimensional in person) and how it captures the light. Here you can see the transition from color to black and white. The original painting is orange, to a bright red print, then to the black and white.
This imagery presents a very cinematic presence; you can almost see the woman moving across the canvas. Alex Katz's portraiture is often inspired or influenced by cinema. For example, in the film La Dolce Vita the characters get caught in the rain and the central woman figure has a gray handkerchief over her head. Katz’s portrait Gray Umbrella, part of this exhibition, is a direct reference to that film."
Gray Umbrella is also an example of how he crops his portraiture in interesting ways. Many portraits of Ada, show her hairline cropped; in Gray Umbrella much of the umbrella is hidden or cropped in his presentation.
This same series also features some of Katz’s first cutouts. Robotham said.,"What is Interesting about Katz’s cutout works is they started out as mistake. He had painted a figure in one of his canvases, was displeased, cut it out and pasted it on the wall. He then realized there was something there and began to include cutouts in some series. It was a way for him to create a three dimensional object, flat objects that have a relationship to his paintings. The earlier cutouts are smaller, table top sized, though eventually he began to experiment with more scale."
In both of his portraiture and landscape work light becomes very important. Katz has stated, "it is not the people,or the objects or the color in my artwork, it is all about the light." In the black and white works he figures how to distill the light in a very monocramatic palate. Katz is a master at distributing the light within a black and white palette.
"So much of his work is not about beauty," Rotbotham said, " While much of his work is about women, it is not voyeus; he is interested in the individuality of the portrait. Each pieces shows a different sensibility, how his marks show the curly hair, how he captures the light in the work to see the entanglements of a braid, or the difference in a woman's smile.”
The last galley contains four pieces from his newest body of work. These are immense in scale, four separate portraits of women silkscreened on canvas. They were done in collaboration with Barney's department store and the non profit organization, Art Production Fund. The artworks were installed in Barney's store windows on Madison Avenue and illuminated from behind. In these works Katz wants the viewer to have the sense of standing in the crowd. Many of the people in these images are people in his circle of friends, as is true in the majority of his paintings. His wife appears in each of these silkscreened images, sometimes repeatedly. In addition, Casey Freemont is portrayed. Robotham said, "Katz can point out who each woman is and why he chose to portray them in the work."
Katz has always been influenced by style. He has been quoted saying even as a teenager he paid attention to what people were wearing around him. This fashion influenced portraiture features what appear to be quick gestural drawings. Robotham said, "It is reminiscent of Katz’s early student work, from the days he sat on the subway and doodled. If you compare this later work, it feels much more more improvisation, as if he is drawing on the fly, much less polished than the drawings you see in the other galleries."
Alex Katz is a recognizable name in the art world. He is an internationally renowned artist and a prolific one. Even though he is turning 90 this year, he reportedly still gets up and paints every day. Born in 1927, Katz received his degree from Cooper Union in the late 1940’s, from there he studied painting at the Skowhegan School which is a residency in Maine. That period of his life, spending summers in Maine, painting outdoors and working with other artists influenced his work, primarily his landscapes. Some of his landscapes are included in this show. Katz continues to have a longstanding relationship with the Skowhegan School.
It is Katz's artwork that is engaging, drawing the viewer into the movement in the images, the details, the appreciation of the female beauty and form. But I have to love an artist who is still painting at ninety and whose wife serves as his primary muse for forty years.
A beautiful large portrait of Ava greets you from the Tampa Riverwalk, based on a rendering made in the 1970s. It is a working wind-vane. I hear it was quite difficult to install.
As Robotham said, "whenever you see an image, whether in a catalog, on the computer or in a photograph, nothing compares to viewing it in person." Visit the show at Tampa Museum of Art before it is gone. Click here for dates and viewing hours: Tampa Museum of Art.