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That knowing look: Alex Katz’s The Red Smile.

An American Original

By Nadine Wasserman

Alex Katz: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art

New York State Museum, through Aug. 19

Most museums have objects in their permanent collection that rarely, if ever, go on display. That is not necessarily because the work has no merit. There are many reasons why a collected item is not on view, and these include limited space in public areas, limited time in the schedule, the fragility of the item, or the fact that the item is specifically being used for research. In addition, well-executed exhibitions go through an editing process to make them visually and thematically coherent, and this means that some pieces inevitably remain in storage. Fortunately, museums with large permanent collections often have the means to create traveling exhibitions so that more of their permanent collection can be on view. The New York State Museum’s Great Art Series has hosted many of these exhibitions organized by such powerhouse New York institutions as the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Currently on display at the New York State Museum is a one-person show of almost 30 works by Alex Katz organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1961, the Whitney was the first museum to acquire a Katz painting—a portrait of the art dealer Richard Bellamy—and now the museum owns some 65 pieces. The exhibition, which includes painting, sculpture, collage, drawing, and prints, begins for the most part chronologically as a way to show how the artist began to develop his signature style. The earliest works may not be his strongest, but they clearly indicate the influences that led Katz to mature as an artist. His recognizable style of using flat, solid colors is hinted at in his work from the early 1950s. Katz, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, and who studied at the Cooper Union, clearly was influenced by abstract expressionism; while studying at Skowhegan, he learned how to paint outdoors, and in the mid-1950s he started using collage to create landscapes with broad planes of color. Influenced by the light and vastness of Maine, Katz would depict the land, water, and sky using only a few colors in horizontal planes with figures or sailboats lending a sense of scale. In Lincolnville Beach, for example, a group of abstracted figures are seated on a broad stretch of sand with blue hills in the distance. Each element appears as a solid color: the sand, the sky, the water, the hills, and the articles of clothing on the figures. As Katz became more interested in realism, he began to develop his hallmark style, which would mature in the 1960s.

In 1957, Katz met his future wife, Ada. At that time Katz was transitioning into portraiture, and ultimately Ada would become the subject of a lifelong fascination that includes more than 250 portraits, several of which are in this exhibition. One of the first was Ada in Pink, a signature piece indicative of his future work. In it Ada is seated with her arms hugging her bent knees. She is in glasses with a yellow coat around her shoulders and is seated on a pinkish ground with no indication of where she might be. The piece is made with oil on composition board, a medium Katz would later use as preparation for larger-scale works. Another important portrait of his wife is Ada (Oval), in which she stands in a blue dress and brown shoes with her arms crossed at the wrists surrounded by a red oval. Across the gallery from this piece is Ada, Ada, a double sculptural portrait showing two cutouts of Ada side by side in the same blue dress. In interviews, Katz explains that Ada was a perfect model for him and that repeating her portrait was an aesthetic investigation. Other portraits of her in the exhibition have titles such as The Red Smile and Black Scarf and demonstrate how Katz uses different angles, brushstrokes, and mediums to explore the same subject matter. Katz has a distinctive style, and his other portraits in the show depict various friends and colleagues, such as Eli, the son of a fellow artist, and Homage to Frank O’Hara: William Dunas.

While Katz is interested in representational forms, he seems less interested in realism than in perception. A good example of this is in one gallery where two pieces side by side show the same head of a woman in a bathing cap. Green Cap (1984) is oil on composition board, and The Green Cap (1985) is a woodcut. By placing them next to one another, it is easy to compare the specific qualities of each medium and to see how each subtly affects the subject matter. The juxtaposition of these two works demonstrates Katz’s interest in the challenge of re-creating what he sees.

While this exhibition functions as a sort of mini-retrospective, there are gaps in the timeline. This is the only downside to showing the work of one artist from a museum’s permanent collection. Nevertheless, the strength of this exhibition is that it shows the range of Katz’s work without being overwhelming, and it captures a sense of his progression over several decades as he developed into an important American artist.


-no peripheral vision this week-


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