Though Alex Katz is known primarily for his large, sparsely detailed portrait paintings, “This Is Now” offered a compelling look at his landscapes. Featuring 60 paintings and collages made between 1954 and 2013, the exhibition was monumental in both scope and effect: by showing a less frequently seen side of Katz’s work, it prompted the viewer to reconsider the artist’s overall project, now well into its sixth decade.
Like his portraits, Katz’s landscape paintings combine a painterly directness with a condensing of representational detail. However, they generate quite different results.
To begin with, the lack of a horizon line in many of the landscapes exerts a gravitational pull even as it unsettles, as in Black Brook 11 (1990), with its slightly left-of-center focal point. The way Katz toggles between flat and modeled imagery reinforces this instability. In Winter Landscape 2 (2007), for example, shifts in scale and value among the tree trunks in the background strongly suggest pictorial depth, contradicted by the graphic treatment of the foreground trees’ branches.
Other works reveal just how assertive and recognizable Katz’s style is at a structural level, even when applied to a range of different subjects. Sunset (1987) and White Roses 9 (2012), each with severely minimized background detail, direct the viewer’s attention to the object depicted and come across less as landscapes than as vastly scaled-up studies.
Sunset, a closely cropped silhouette of a tree set against a red sky, presents what might be considered the bare constitutive elements of a landscape. White Roses 9 shows ten roses at very close range, their scant, schematic detail offset by a flat blue backdrop. These works were among the strongest in the exhibition. In them, Katz’s painterly shorthand serves as a prompt—an entry into an experience that viewers must then finish on their own terms.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 88.