New York

Alex Katz

Pace Wildenstein

The large-scale landscape and flower paintings in Alex Katz’s recent exhibition are luminous paeans both to painterly gesture and to elementary color and form. A few of the landscapes might even pass for abstractions: Green Shadows, 2001, is mostly a furious scumble of dark brushwork; a handful of diminutive yellow flowers at the bottom of the canvas is the only obviously representational passage. In Road, 2002, an initial uncertainty as to what’s being represented resolves as you’re engulfed by the work: It’s two shafts of dappled sunlight bisecting a dark lane, conjuring depth of field seemingly without effort. Here, as elsewhere, Katz’s painterly language is visceral and sure: Blacks, grays, and yellows are crisply differentiated by the artist’s always deft, muscular brushwork. Katz has referred to his landscapes as “environmental” for the way they can visually envelop a viewer; indeed, their real subject seems to be those transitory instances of sensory bewilderment we experience every day.

Other landscapes on view have the spare lucidity of a Japanese print. Woods in Twilight, 2002, features four slim tree trunks against a dark green background. Leaves dot the canvas, hovering unattached to branch or limb—each is like an independent creature, the brushstroke depicting it crucial. These marks also indicate the persistent sense of risk that propels this artist, for whom capturing light, form, and motion in a painting is a performance, a vibrant visual record of a man’s actions and choices. Evidence of the skill with which Katz places mark after mark, each stroke evincing both focus and thrall, contributes to the works’ vast allure.

If the physical presence of the artist’s person has typically been strong in Katz’s oeuvre, this is especially true now that, at seventy-six, he has pared an already spare style down to its pictorial essentials. Birches, 2002, is a particularly vivid example of the aesthetic terrain between Abstract Expressionism and Pop that Katz has marked out for himself. In it, two tree trunks, flocked across by green leaves, stand out boldly against a yellow (one intuits sun-drenched) ground. The sense of space is achieved with lithe efficiency; light appears to cluster and play between these boughs. In the more brooding Spring Landscape, 2001, a brilliant cascade of canary yellow leaves is suspended against a drab background; nebulous green shapes hover in the canvas’s upper third. The question of exactly what these elements depict seems less important than the way they emblematize the mysteries of our perceptive capacity.

Of the flower paintings, Yarrow, 2002, a golden yellow field dotted with umbrella-shape blossoms atop boldly brushed stems, is a testament to just how much “more” this mature artist’s “less” has become. Here the flora broadcast a gentle showiness, one that seems innocent, bumbling, eager. Roses on Blue, 2002, harks back to the naive quality of Katz’s early collages, combining the affable charm and lyric buffoonery of a classic animation still. The effect of the sweeping Magnolia, 2002, is something like being near a flock of large birds during a frenzied takeoff. One almost feels abashed for liking this work so much, for succumbing to endearments so visually primal, to a style so honed to its essence. Yet this seems to describe why we’re drawn to landscapes in the first place, and why flowers seduce us all.

Tom Breidenbach