Looking Over His Shoulder

‘Alex Katz: Small Paintings’ brings you unexpectedly close to the artist

<i>Green Cap</i>, 1984
Green Cap, 1984

Intimacy is an interesting subject for a representational painter active in the late 20th century, and not one I usually associate with Alex Katz, who is best known for outsized portraits that looked so timely in the 1960s and 1970s and which continue to convey that era. Those huge works use a spare vocabulary and luminous color -- a tint of peach or salmon or some unnamable color that sticks in your mind when you turn away from the painting, a glow that can compensate for the lack of connection to the subject. Alienation was said to be a sign of the times, but while alienation goes in and out of vogue, that glow persists, speaking across time.

One such ongoing series transformed Ada, Katz's wife and frequent subject, into an American icon. Ada in a Pillbox Hat from 1961 certainly captures the optimism and style of the Camelot years. We see Ada's head and shoulders; she is smiling out beyond the viewer, yet one cannot make eye contact. With her dark hair and open smile, it is hard not to think of Jackie Kennedy, and like Jackie, in this painting, Ada exists in a world of her own, close but slightly muffled from us. It is as though we see her speaking just over there but can't quite hear the words.

Icons and intimacy are not often used in the same sentence or in the same painting. But after seeing "Alex Katz: Small Paintings" at the Austin Museum of Art, I want to revisit his large works to see if that duo coexists there as well. It is a terrific show; a mini retrospective of the painter's lesser-known small works, paired with a mini retrospective of Robert Frank's photographs, including excerpts from "The Americans." Taken together, the shows give you a small sampling of two artists who changed the way we look at our world.

It may sound like a cliché to dwell on the idea of intimacy and small paintings: Viewing small paintings is often an intimate experience, as the viewer is larger than the image and apprehends it best in personal space, at close view. But in Katz's case, it is not a cliché; it is a surprise. Katz's large portraits have sometimes felt vacant to me, a bit removed. The small paintings are intimate not only for viewing but in perspective and subject matter. You feel as if you are looking over the artist's shoulder as he paints, and he paints domesticity -- flowers, landscapes, portraits, the beach, cityscapes -- all from a privileged or protected vantage point.

And the artist paints over his model's shoulders in Vincent and Ada at Ducktrap, a two-sided double portrait. Ada is seated, her body sunk deep in heavy grass. Baby Vincent is just standing between her knees on one side; on the other side, we see the back of Ada's thick hair, amid grass, with Vincent's face engulfed by his too-big sun hat, his dark eyes locked onto his father, the painter, and by extension, us, the viewers.

Some of the sense of intimacy comes simply from seeing a body of work that spans 40 years. Ada, for example, becomes a familiar presence, and this show becomes a record of change. Ada, young and smiling, gives way to a more somber Ada who rarely smiles anymore. When we see Ada in Black Scarf, she is elegant to her bones, yet also sadder and older. Her eyes look just over your shoulder, one eye sad and angry, one resigned. It recalls the photographs that Alfred Steiglitz took daily of his wife, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe.

<i>White Pine in Field</i>, 1954
White Pine in Field, 1954

Is that Ada in Green Cap? There is the lovely head of a swimmer in a green swimming cap against an aqua background. The light is summer; ostensibly this is a benign image of leisure time. Close up, you feel wetness just looking at her unusually pale eyelashes. But seen from a distance, there is an underlying sense of anxiety which crosses her face. Again she looks away from the viewer. There is an edge of something happening off-screen, something troubling, perhaps just about to happen, capturing the on-again, off-again apocalyptic anxiety that has plagued us since the Cold War started.

This sense of things on the cusp recurs in many of Katz's paintings, regardless of subject. It is there earliest in landscapes, such as Late Spring from 1954, a gray-white sky above budding light greens and pinks, and in weather events such as Landscape from 1959. A dark gray-green forest shape separates a slope of green ground from a stormy metal-gray sky, working its way uphill, almost like a smoky apparition crawling on its belly, forcing its way through the threatening sky. It appears in figurative works, such as Walk (Study) from 1970, in which a child stands sideways on a narrow wooden walkway hanging low over a marsh. It is summer, his shirt is off, and everything is brimming and growing. The child seems to be balancing on a tightrope, as if learning to walk all over again -- he seems kin to a caterpillar, about to morph into a different being.

Dawn from 1995 portrays a physical and psychic state of being. Katz could be painting the act of waking from a dream and coming to consciousness. The moment quickly passes, but Katz reminds us of feelings and scenes that are worth encountering and remembering.

While the intimacy of his work here surprises, Katz's economy of means and color do not. These are hallmarks of his paintings, large and small. The paring down begins as early as 1951-1952, in Two Figures in a Field. A mustard-colored horseshoe conveys a seated child's legs, his feet dangling just above the ground, toes pointed together. It is winter; the dry, stalky field surrounding the two is no more than ochre-hued brushstrokes. Two telephone poles against the flat, gently luminous sky define distance as they recede, with a jaunty tilt of their crossbars.

I always knew from "the glow" that Katz was a colorist. But the small paintings contain a complexity of color that is a pleasure to see. In painting after painting, there are varied chords of color; one note luminous, one deep, one emanating light, one absorbing light, and a few in between. This is in no way formulaic. Each painting invents a new score of music to capture something specific about the quieter moments of life that can get lost unless you take time to savor them.

Some of those quieter moments have to do with the loneliness we experience in life. Whether or not it is deliberate on part of the curator, the exhibition ends with a sense of aloneness. Gone are the portraits, the beach scenes; night paintings predominate. Copper Window from 1999 shows a small, warm light emanating from a window hung with tendrils of vine, surrounded by a vast, dense darkness. New Year's Eve, from 1990, falls softly on a cityscape of rooftops, glowing warm violet-pink.

Ultimately, My Mother's Dream changes the tenor altogether. It is a single panel with four wind-tossed landscapes in a row, alternating one in color and one devoid of color. It reads to this viewer as a frightening dream; these are not just day-and-night images. The urgent, frenetic brushstrokes and the lack of visibility in the dark grays suggest an episode of losing control, almost like dying, the lights being turned off and on again in a struggle to regain control.

As with the ambiguous Green Cap, it feels as if Katz has produced an image that captures the Zeitgeist. When one sees a body of work over a span of years, the work stays the same, but the context around it changes. Seeing these celebrations of art and life, a particularly American life, against the possible outbreak of war, these works start to look like the belle époque that preceded the Great War that opened the 20th century. Let us hope that is not the case.

Robert Storr, professor of modern art at New York University, will give a lecture on Alex Katz Friday, March 28, 7pm, at the Austin Museum of Art, 823 Congress.

Austin artists James Housefield and Susan Whyne will give an informal tour and response to the Alex Katz and Robert Frank exhibitions on Saturday, March 29, 3pm, at AMOA, 823 Congress. Both events are free.

"Alex Katz: Small Paintings" is on view at the Austin Museum of Art, 823 Congress, through May 5. For information call 495-9029 or visit www.amoa.org.

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Alex Katz, Ada Katz, Ada in a Pillbox Hat, Alex Katz: Small Paintings, Austin Museum of Art, Vincent and Ada at Ducktrap, Black Scarf, Green Cap, Late Spring, Landscape, Walk (Study), Dawn, Two Figures in a Field, Robert Storr, James Housefield, Susan Whyne

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