ALEX KATZ, White Roses 9, 2012, oil on linen, 274.3 × 548.6 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Timothy Taylor, London. 

West Broadway and Spring

Alex Katz

West Bund Art & Culture Pilot Zone
USA China

Pop-up exhibitions can either be surprisingly inventive, commingling content with locale for innovative, imaginative purposes, or they can invariably feel provisional and akin to curatorial disaster areas. Alex Katz’s week-long exhibition “West Broadway and Spring” presented by the London-based gallery Timothy Taylor, coincided with the third edition of Shanghai’s West Bund Art & Design art fair. The show was a startlingly bold project, augmenting the growing international position of the fair with its expanding roster of foreign participants and its market potential. While this wasn’t the first time the work of the now 89-year-old American artist was shown in Shanghai—James Cohan Gallery Shanghai presented his work in 2011—“West Broadway and Spring” was certainly the largest presentation of Katz’s paintings that included both a mix of the artist’s iconic portraits of women as well as several sizable and optically-charged landscape paintings.

ALEX KATZ, Double White Band (Vivien), 2013, oil on linen, 182.9 × 335.3 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Timothy Taylor, London. 

Presented in a two-story building across from the West Bund Art Center where the fair was held, the exhibition space wasn’t without challenges. A severely sloped concrete floor made the hanging of the work difficult given that some of the landscape paintings were as large as five-meters long, such as White Roses 9 (2012) or White Pine 2 (2003), with its tranquil, olive green background and a flurry of dark windswept branches, greeting visitors upon entering the space. Installation obstacles aside, the show presented nine major works, nearly all made within the last five years, with the exception of White Pines 2. Each painting embodies Katz’s pioneering style, a singular, accessible vernacular that predates the arrival of Pop Art and defies the lingering hangover of Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s, which set Katz apart from other artists of his generation. 

While still a student in 1949 at Cooper Union School of Art in New York, Katz, at age 22, had a choice of summer schools: Yale or Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. Katz went to Maine. It was there that things began to gel, not only in the way of subject matter but also his abiding commitment to make art for the rest of his life. Since 1950, Katz’s has made Maine his summer home. He has, however, never romanticized the long shadows of tradition of other American landscape painters, notably John Marin or Marsden Hartley, who were also profoundly inspired by Maine’s rugged seacoast and wild natural beauty. Then there’s the other side of the artist, the urbane chronicler of cosmopolitan life who painted glamorous portraits of women and fashionable friends, cocktail parties, those of New York School poets, and dancers—the inner circle of his chic downtown New York community—and also of his immediate family, his son Vincent and his wife Vivien and, of course, Katz’s wife Ada whom he has painted throughout his entire career.

ALEX KATZ, Rachael and Tarajia, 2014, oil on linen, 121.9 × 274.3 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Timothy Taylor, London. 

Among the standout figurative paintings in the exhibition is the large twin-like portrait, Double White Band (Vivien) from 2013, featuring the right and left profiles of a woman wearing a wide white hair band, set against a stark baby blue surface. These faces are large and in effect identical, emanating from and fully occupying the entire edges of the canvas. With ample space between them it feels as if they might be gazing into a mirror or perhaps meeting a twin for the first time. In another rectangular double portrait, Rachael and Tarajia (2014), two female figures appear on a solid black ground as if surrounded by darkness. Again, occupying the far edges of the painting, the figure to the left, depicted nearly in full profile, wears a slate gray off-the-shoulder dress and stares directly at the woman to her right, who wears a patterned blue jacket and gazes directly at the viewer. We feel we’ve intruded on the pair or somehow interrupted them. And this is how Katz invites viewers to bring their own narratives to the work, how these situations create a tension, placing us in the now, inviting us into the story.   

ALEX KATZ, Two Trees, 2015, oil on linen, 304.8 × 243.8 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Timothy Taylor, London. 

The landscape paintings in this exhibition are especially remarkable given their scale and complexity. Using a wet-on-wet technique, the artist is required to work at lightning speed as all of his paintings are made in a single session, sometimes taking up to 12 hours or more. The intensity and sustained focus involved at this stage in Katz’s life is nothing short of heroic. The landscapes manifest an extraordinary vitality as the eye moves over its surfaces. Two Trees, dating from only a year ago, in 2015, is an astonishing work that engages a spatial depth and layering not seen in the others included in this exhibition. The painting depicts a pair of solidly rooted trees in the foreground on the left-hand side of the painting. It’s a blustery day as splotchy green leaves made by rapid brushwork swirl across the entire the painting. A barren patch of land stretches through the middle half the composition, and in the distance, a dense forest or expanse of a grassy field are set below a cloudless blue sky. You can almost feel the late afternoon light going down. Capturing the shifts and movements of light are subtleties Katz has fully understood throughout the course of his career, making these seemingly casual and solitary moments feel eternal.                

“Alex Katz: West Broadway and Spring” was on view at West Bund Art & Culture Pilot Zone, Shanghai, from November 7–13, 2016.

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