Blowing Up Maine
A decade ago, Scottish painter Peter Davies painted two famous paintings “The Hot One Hundred” and “The Hip One Hundred.” Both paintings are simply colorful lists of important artists. Alex Katz made both paintings. He was No. 90 on “The Hot One Hundred,” but he was No. 4 on “The Hip One Hundred.”
Since the death of Andrew Wyeth (who didn’t make either list painting), Alex Katz has probably been the most famous artist working in Maine, or New England for that matter. At 83, Katz is still both hot and hip, a prince of the New York art world who has summered in a little yellow cottage in Lincolnville, Maine, since 1954.
In the 1960s, Katz was associated with Pop Art, artists such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns whose work appropriated popular culture imagery and often used commercial art techniques to elevate the mundane to fine art. Katz apparently still identifies with Pop Art as his website carries the tag, “Official site of the Pop artist from Brooklyn.”
Katz made an international name for himself painting billboard-like (and sometimes billboard-size) figurative paintings and portraits of his friends, family, and the fashionable. Cool, hip, and ironic, his deceptively simple, flat portraits were all about contemporary style.
An entire wing of the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, is devoted to the paintings, prints, drawings, and sculptural cut-outs of Alex Katz, so Maine residents and visitors can always get their fill of Katz. Currently, however, the hot Katz show is Alex Katz: New Work (through December) at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
Alex Katz: New Work features 19 paintings created in Maine in the summers of 2008 and 2009. The show coincides with the Farnsworth honoring Katz with its 2010 Maine in America Award, an award previously given to art historian John Wilmerding (2006) and artists Andrew Wyeth (2007), Will Barnet (2008), and Robert Indiana (2009).
The exhibition features several of Katz’s signature portraits. “Sharon and Vivien,” for example, is a head-and-shoulders likeness of two young women (Vivien being the artist’s daughter-in-law) against a hot yellow background. “Inka and Zophia” depicts another pair of young women, (Inka being painter Inka Essenhigh, another Maine summer resident). There is also a portrait of the artist’s son Vincent wearing sunglasses. As ever, Katz’s sitters remain impassive and neutral, expressionless. Oddly, there are no paintings of Katz’s favorite subject, his wife Ada, an icon of contemporary art.
The exhibition also includes a selection of the Maine landscapes for which Katz is less well known.
I once remarked to Katz that his Lincolnville neighbor Neil Welliver had applied the lessons of abstraction to landscape painting in the same way that Katz had applied them to figure painting – everything on the surface, paint-as-paint taking precedent over paint as illusion. In fact, both men used the same method of enlarging their paintings, making drawings on signwriter’s paper, tracing the lines with a serrated pounce wheel to poke holes in the drawing, and then dusting the lines with charcoal dust to transfer the drawing to canvas.
“I’m the one who upped the ante in landscape painting,” Katz replied in no uncertain terms. “When you stand in front of one of my paintings you are in the landscape.”
If so, that’s in large part because Katz’s landscapes are so BIG. The Farnsworth show includes a pair of monumental flutters of maple leaves, a series of “Homage to Monet” paintings of water lilies, and a wallpaper-like painting of buttercups. Each of these paintings measures 6 x 12 feet. The grandest of all is “Water Hyacinth,” a frieze of aquatic leaves 4 feet by 20 feet.
Alex Katz’s approach to the Maine landscape is to zoom in and then blow things up. When it works, it does so because Katz excels at translating the immediacy of drawing to the much slower medium of painting. When it doesn’t, as in one of the water lily paintings, a picture of two little gray men in a canoe adrift on a white canvas, and a sunset through trees nocturne, it’s because neither the subject matter nor the painter’s droll, uninflected style are compelling enough to warrant being blown up so large.
Katz likes to say that his paintings have no meanings, no messages, nothing to get between the viewer and appearances. What they do have, however, is ambition, the drive to make the people and places of his life the stuff of art history. Most of time he’s successful.
[Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum St., Rockland ME, 207-596-6457]
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