"Christine," etching, 2013
"Christine," etching, 2013
© Alex Katz

Alex Katz

Portraits and Late Summer Flowers

Meyerovich Gallery, San Francisco

Aug. 1 – Nov. 11, 2013

Everyone wants to fit in, even artists. But Alex Katz has never fit into mainstream modernism, or what passes for postmodernism today. Art historians and the general public have tried to pigeonhole him as a pop artist because he uses flat surfaces and simple recognizable images, but his aesthetic concerns have never lined up with theirs. Others have defined him as an artist who simply rebelled against the New York School abstract expressionists because they were the only game in town when he started painting in the 1950s. And here was Katz, who painted what was in front of him, not ab-ex tumult. Could he really be a serious artist without all that ab-ex explosiveness pulsing underneath like a turbulent river? He may have taken heroic scale from them, but turbulence no. He was much more interested in catching the moment on the run, the way a page is finished before another one’s begun.

The page metaphor is apt because the eight portraits here can be seen as pages from an album, though not a 19th-century German romantic Albumblätter, because there’s nothing sentimental about them. His sitters here inhabit their worlds as much as anyone in his work, and their privacy intrigues the way portraits by the great classic masters from Velázquez to Titian, Ingres, and more recently, Matisse and Beckmann, do. But his portraits are never morbid or near morbid, like those of Lucian Freud or Otto Dix.

Katz’s sitters look matter-of-fact and, because of that, enormously suggestive. His dealer Javier López is caught looking directly at the viewer in his 2013 white-on-black etching, “Javier.” Does that spell Spanish sobriety as in de Falla’s severely beautiful 1926 harpsichord concerto for Landowska? Probably not, though it’s tempting to think so. Is “Christine” sad, vulnerable, or just preoccupied with something we can’t see? Is “Elizabeth ” (I-III ), with her mass of thicker, longer hair, resolute — or is it just the way the side or overhead light hits her as Katz records her face? ” And what is “Meghan,” centered in profile, facing left about? She’s classically, almost 19th-century cameo, pretty, though Katz isn’t interested in that past, but in catching the light falling full on her face in the present.

Katz’s muse and wife of 54 years, Ada, makes yet another appearance in a black-and-white left-facing profile view, her image cropped just below the shoulders, complex black shapes against the white that serves as ground. The positive/negative pull of black and white or white grounding black figures in the 10-foot wide woodblock ” Flags,” which substitutes black for the yellow flowers with green stems of his even bigger painting of the same name. The eye reads it quick coming forward, going back.
Katz has always tried to make the time of painting one with the time of seeing, and his aquantint “Late Summer Flowers” certainly fits that bill, with its dramatically cropped view of flowers like peonies, with an off-red one coming quick into the frame.
His aquatint of his daughter-in-law “Vivien” ( Bittencourt ) holds the wall as surely his much larger painting of this same image as she looks imperturbably at or past the viewer into what she can alone see, and the colors here, though muted, pack as much punch as the other monochrome ones in the show.

Alex Meyerovich has shown Katz’s work in San Francisco since 1986. That’s a long time in our relentlessy speeded up present, which Katz has caught with power, precision, and grace, or as his poet friend of many years once put it, “We live in this gradually getting used to… “

Michael McDonagh is a San Francisco-based poet, playwright, filmmaker, and writer on the arts. His poems have appeared in many places including Stanford's poetry mag "Mantis," and he reads quite frequently at San Francisco's "Sacred Grounds Cafe." Seven of his poems have been set to music--six, by Lisa Scola Prosek--www.scolavox.com--were performed by her on piano, with soprano Diane Landau, at San Francisco's "Goat Hall" in 2001. Another poem--"night and trees," set by the late composer Gerhard Samuel was performed by the members of the www.sfcco.org and can be heard on its site. His work for the theatre includes "touch and go--for three voices," which "Zack's Common Cultural Practice" performed at San Francisco's "Venue 9" in 1998, and "Sight Unseen," a theatre piece for one performer, which Sophia Holman -- now www.sophieellsberg.com-- world premiered at New York's www.bowerypoetryclub.org in 2011. McDonagh directed a film version with German actor Hermann Eppert in Berlin in 2013, which can be seen online. He performed a live version with pianist Ric Louchard playing Satie's "4th Gnossienne"--followed by a sequence of his poems, and a showing of Eppert's version at the "Berkeley Arts Festival" in 2014. His collaborations with artists of other disciplines includes two poem-picture books with San Francisco-based painter www.garybukovnik.com--"Before I Forget" and "once--they're planning a third,"--and the film "Alex North Viva Zapata! 2010," realized with the videographers Donovan Bauer, Peter Hibdon, and Joe Luis Garcia Nava, which Alejandro Escuer's www.onixensemble.com under conductor Rodrigo Macias played live in Pueblo, Mexico in 2010. His writing on the literary, visual, and musical arts have appeared in many places including the "The San Francisco Chronicle," "The San Francisco Review of Books," "The Los Angeles Times," "The Advocate," "Stagebill," and "Keyboard." He has also written catalogs for two arts shows--Cal State Hayward's "Contemporary Romanticism," and Matt Phillips' eightieth birthday show at www.meyerovich.com. He has contributed to www.alexnorthmusic.com, and www.classical-music-review.org and regularly contributes to www.ebar.com, www.culturevulture.net, www.sequenza21.com, www.21st-centurymusic.com, and served as president of the Bay Area's Duke Ellington Society for many years. Currently he is working on a sequence of poems, and "Anna and Vronsky,"--after Tolstoy--and meditates writing a fractured piece on love called "The Scene of the Crime."