New York

Alex Katz

Robert Miller Gallery

To one who’s never been a fan of Alex Katz’s work, this survey of some sixty small paintings, spanning thirty years, came as the proverbial pleasure, hinting at unexpected delights and at an unknown talent for the moving nuance. These oil sketches—mainly small preparatory studies for finished paintings—indicate the “private” side under Katz’s noted “public” image; they have an intimacy, an immediacy, and indeed a variety lacking in his large-scale billboard-style works.

This documentation of the personal aspect of Katz’s endeavor began with work from the early ’50s and continued through the studies of recent years. Within it, members of the artist’s familiar cast of characters, encompassing his wife, his son, and friends, are all set against different countryside retreats. These are quick sketches, but they demonstrate an uncanny ability to compose, to condense, and hence to evoke the core of his figured scenes; they show Katz’s skill at conjuring the emptiness of a hazy seascape, or at capturing the pristine geometry of a simple island summer house as light and shadow intersect. Throughout we find a kind of offhand, casual approach in the artist’s responses and their pictorial transformations, evident in the odd combinations of color, the open brushwork, and the strangely angled cropping that bestows importance on small details. One of the strongest works is a very “minor” study of cows in a field, dated 1954, in which three flat planes pit pale pink against acid yellow and chartreuse in an examination of the luminosity evoked through judicious placement of hue and of the evocative power of near-abstract shapes to convey figurative thought.

These early works are mostly tonal sketches; it’s only in the mid ’60s that the paintings begin to pull at differences in the gradations of hues, becoming starker, contrasted, often harsh. Moreover, a delight in brushstrokes marks these early works, differentiating them from later flat color planes. Two terrific rose studies from 1966 show Katz’s characteristic plays with frames that tightly encompass or cut their subjects, lending a virtuoso flourish to the effect. The ’70s sketches are mostly lakeside views—simple figure studies—which give onto the portrait heads of the early ’80s. These are rather typical of Katz, somewhat short on characterization if long on gesture, but they display a loose stroke and chromatic force far distant from his normative work. Bright strawberry pink and aqua comprise the backgrounds, suffusing the narrow framed confines in hot luminous glow. And in the landscape sketches of trees, bushes, houses, et al., Katz reaches new impressionistic heights. In one tiny 1983 study of tiger lilies which fuses orange, yellow, and green, the light hits you as from a window on the brightest midsummer day.

Kate Linker