We think we know what things are about when we see them. Sure, they are what they are, but how could they not be, and if things were only that we wouldn’t need art, and our latest phony “deep” buzz word ” it is what it is ” can’t come in and save us.
These thoughts came to mind when I caught New York painter Alex Katz’s latest show of 14 landscapes done between 2013 and 2015, in which his famous “simplicity”, for which he’s been both reviled and celebrated for over 40 years, takes center stage. This “simplicity” makes them appear paradoxically both matter of fact and unknowable, so there’s a lot more going on under his immaculate surfaces if — you really look.
His “Fog” (2014), which measures 9 by 18 feet, is clearly monumental, but also curiously intimate, and definitely mysterious. His painted “reality” in ” Fog” also seems to trump what we normally take for real, with wide swathes of “almost ” white, “almost blue”, and “almost grey” which register as another “almost” color which immerses you if you stand up close and are in the “Fog”, and Katz has spoken a lot about how his landscapes have abandoned the conventional window “on” nature — which is all over classic European art — to put the viewer “in” his painted in the present world.
This happens in the equally monumental and equally mysterious 9 by 11 foot ” 1230 pm 3 ” (2014) which may be the final “resolution” of a series of 3 paintings of the same image which grows successively more dynamic/dramatic. Three variations of off green are contrasted and harmonized with a saturated yellow field behind a stand of e 6 trees, caught, shadowed, in the brisk overhead noon light, the grass flattened, Katz’s thick brushstrokes in the trees functioning as both abstraction and painterly gestures, like a quasi-realistic “color field ” painting intense in opposed and contributory hues.
Different kinds of intensities occur in works like the 8 and 1/2 by 10 foot “Red House 4 ” (2013) which may be the final “resolution” of a series of the same eponymous house caught in late morning or early afternoon light, the house coming slightly closer, or receding slightly in each “take” like serial shots in a film, the house absorbed and framed by trees with a a robin’s egg blue above.
The 7 by 9 foot “Snow Scene 2 ” (2014) is another serial take of a house in a field, which Katz paints in off grey, off blue, and a kind of off ochre, with the visual/physical/psychological fact of winter caught in a specific painted moment wrested from and arrested in time.
But perhaps the real subject of the show is time, or light in time, the time of each moment rendered differently according to the demands of that moment in time. The black leaves of the unseen tree in the 9 by 12 foot “4pm ” (2014) trembling in quick instinctive brushstrokes, or the even light in the “flatly” painted yet enormously suggestive 8 by 9 foot “10 am ” (2014). But I think the most “difficult”, most elusive and possibly greatest piece in the show is the thinly painted all grisaille 9 by 7 foot ” Untitled Cityscape 5 ” ( 2014) which up close looks like Whistler in grainy grey forget it’s not London but a New York view heightened, specific, meditated, gone on the run, which happens to be where all things are. Decidedly here, but not here too, the irony of course being that something so direct and “simple ” could be so mysterious, even ineffable.
This is the last big 6 week show at Gavin Brown’s handsome white high-ceilinged 3 gallery space before a much shorter one, because — you guessed it — the former meat-packing house on the corner of Greenwich and Leroy — will be turned into condos. And I thought San Francisco was bad, though the New York ones may at least have the advantage of style, and real style is what separates Katz’s work from his art world — and let’s not limit it to that — poseurs.