Seeing the Trees for the Art: Alex Katz Finds New Inspiration at 90
By GINNY VAN ALYEA
The artist Alex Katz is well known around the world for his colorful, stylized portraits and bold natural landscapes. Prolific for decades, he marked his 90th birthday in 2017 and is still making art. His latest exhibition, Grass and Trees, opened April 12 at Richard Gray Gallery, featuring work that goes in a new direction, proving that we as humans never have to stop observing or creating.
Critic John Yau, in an essay on Katz’s new work says, “The list of artists who break through to a new way of making art after turning eighty is not very long. Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and Willem de Kooning are among the few in this category.” He points out that in this new series of work is, “The feeling of not quite knowing where you are or where you are going, which is rather unsettling when you consider the artist’s age.”
When I visited the gallery on a cold spring morning, I entered the quiet, empty warehouse space and came face to face with a large scale vertical painting of a set of sun– dappled steps buffetted by thick green foliage. It’s not clear whether the steps are going down, or up, since the destination is unseen. The lines are curved and the steps themselves are a bit fuzzy, perhaps from the perspective of someone who has spent 90 years on earth. Everything looks a bit broader and softer; the light is fresh and clear.
Yau emphasizes that the Grass paintings are “Unlike anything Katz has ever done before,” though he notes their art historical ties through “a dialog with Franz Kline’s black-and-white abstractions, but solely on Katz’s terms. Katz’s paint is thinner and the strokes are looser, more at ease with themselves. This is plein-air painting taken to a new level.”
In 2015, when he turned 88, Katz told artnet, “Most painters, when they get older, they get worse. And the real good ones get better. This is, like, my stab at saying ‘I got better.’” Indeed he’s like the rare musician who, instead of going on a greatest hits tour or taking a standing gig in Las Vegas, continues to write new and relevant music that audiences of all ages enjoy.
In addition to the first painting that greets visitors in the gallery, Road 1, another similar work is hung at the other end of the space, as well as several large scale Grass pieces. On a frigid April day – snowing, in Chicago, on opening day of baseball season – the expanses of intense sunny yellow and verdant green are like a caffeine boost after a late night. I feel as if I am standing under a light lamp, absorbing much needed nutrients after too much time in the dark.
Standing close to Grass 5, which at a remarkable 108 x 216 inches is the largest work in the show, I view sections of the linen surface one at a time, noticing the many layers of oil paint in various shades and combinations: green on yellow, green on green, yellow on green, and dark green on lighter green. Marks from Katz’s paintbrush bristles are individually visible, creating an effect of blades of grass. I imagin I am shrunk down to the size of a chickadee or suddenly on the lawn of a giant. If that were the case I might feel lost, but standing in the gallery I feel immersed in Katz’s powerfully saturated and contrasting colors, moved by brushstrokes that give a feeling of blowing in the breeze.
Commenting on the surface coverage of the works, Yau notes, “Katz does not paint even a sliver of sky; there is a feeling of being hemmed in, but it is never oppressive.” His focus on the ground makes you look carefully at your surroundings rather than what might be above and beyond. In the case of the Road pieces, I look at what is in front of me, as if truly walking an unfamiliar path. For Yau, art history once again informs these compositions: “Katz’s Road 1 and Road 2 (both 2017) are in dialog with Paul Cézanne’s La route tournante en sous-bois (Bend in the forest road) (1902–06). Whereas the road in Cézanne’s painting bends before disappearing, overtaken by the forest, Katz’s road goes straight back, narrowing as it rises up the picture plane, until it comes to a halt.”
The week that Grass and Trees opened, Katz attended the opening at Richard Gray, and he participated in a talk at the Art Institute with Anne Goldstein, as well as a Q&A at the gallery with Yau and Northwestern University’s Ivy Wilson. At 90 Katz continues to push the limits of his own art, as well as participate in an important dialogue about the evolving role of art in our society.
Every year when spring finally comes in the Midwest, everyone knows to enjoy it while it lasts. Katz’s career has been long and illustrious. We are fortunate that he has continued to make art that sheds new light on the people and spaces around all of us.
Alex Katz: Grass and Trees
On view thru June 2
Richard Gray Gallery, Gray Warehouse
2044 W. Carroll, Chicago (60612)
Top image: Grass and Trees installed at Gray Warehouse on Chicago’s west side