Friday, June 24, 2016

Quick Light

 Alex Katz, West 1, 1998

The Serpentine Gallery currently has two excellent exhibitions, not to mention the striking new Bjarke Ingels pavilion.  I'll write about Etel Adnan separately; here I offer a few words about Alex Katz, and some images too because, unusually, you are allowed to take photographs.  The show is called 'Quick Light', suggesting moments of illumination, sun glancing off objects or perhaps, in the large painting above, windows glimpsed at night from a passing car.  Get up close to this painting and there are no further clues to the forms of the buildings or the identity of the city, all is black.  Such scenes are non-specific but were painted in New York, where Katz was born back in 1927 and where he started painting among the Abstract Expressionists and hanging out with the New York School poets. In another nocturnal image, Untitled Cityscape 4 (below), we see only a fragment of a dark building, a two-dimensional shadow against a cold grey sky streaked with ghostly cloud forms.  It is like a cropped detail from an Edward Hopper painting.  The fork of an aerial and corner of a dimly lit window have an air of menace.  What we are shown of the roof resembles a fortification. 

 Alex Katz, Untitled Cityscape 4, 2014

Some of the daylit scenes in this exhibition have an unsettling quality too - an air of mystery that you find in younger artists Katz has influenced like Peter Doig4pm 2014 is painted in sickly shades of green and the view of what looks like a distant boathouse is obscured by a tree whose leaves are blowing into the cold sky.  As with Doig's landscapes, you often find yourself picturing a scene from a film, just before or after some darkly significant event.  That cloud of leaves in motion reminded me of the park in Antonioni's Blow Up where you hear nothing but the wind in the trees.  The painting below could be the illustration of a fable or fairy story, or some dream-like narrative by a Robert Walser or Franz Kafka.  It is painted in flat planes of colour, like a Matisse, except for the feathery strands of grass which seem to be animated by a breeze.  I thought again of cinema - the wind in the buckwheat in Tarkovsky's Mirror, the wheat swaying in Herzog's Kaspar Hauser.  Katz has said that he wanted his large-scale paintings to have the quality of the blown-up faces and landscapes you see on a movie screen. 

Alex Katz, Red House 3, 2013
Leaving the Serpentine Gallery and walking back out into the bright sunshine of Hyde Park I found myself seeing the lake and trees and various tableaux of figures in terms of Katz's vision of landscape.  A recent article in the Telegraph described the way Katz experienced something similar himself in the art of Cézanne.  'About a decade ago, Katz visited an exhibition of work by the French post-impressionist. “I was looking at his stuff and saying: ‘See, the guy couldn’t paint, it’s terrible, this is overworked’ – stuff like that,” he recalls. “Then, when I got on a train, all I could see were Cézanne landscapes. His vision is so strong that it dominates your mind. And that, for me, is the highest thing an artist can do.”'

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