SURFACE Beauty Art: The lack of any background messages means everything to painter Alex Katz. His landscapes go on display this week at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

June 09, 1996|By JOHN DORSEY | JOHN DORSEY,SUN ART CRITIC

"What the painting is is more important than what it means," says Alex Katz. "I'm trying to get meaning out of the room."

The hardest thing for people to accept when they look at Alex Katz's paintings may be that they do not hide some deep social or psychological meaning. We are conditioned to expect a message from art, and when the art is as immediately accessible and easy to look at as Katz's, we're inclined to think the simplicity must be deceptive.

So when we visit the 40 paintings of "Alex Katz Under the Stars: American Landscapes 1951-1995," opening at the Baltimore +V Museum of Art Wednesday, we may need to remind ourselves that the painting "Winter Landscape" (1992), with its three black trees silhouetted against a white background, isn't about death and resurrection.

Or that "Canoe" (1974), a painting of an empty canoe sitting on the water, has nothing to do with the virtual destruction of the American Indian and his culture.

What, then, is this work all about?

"He paints what he knows," says Brenda Richardson, the BMA's deputy director for art and the one who brought the show here. "He paints people in his social ambience and landscapes within his living environment. We might make a social comment about that, but as far as I'm concerned, his work has nothing to do with social commentary. I think the work is about light and gesture."

Katz, speaking by telephone from his New York studio, agrees.

"She's got it," he says. "The work is about light and appearance. I don't want anything to get in the way between you and it -- no story, no message, no nothing. Just you and it.

"I think the light in my painting is extremely quick. It's more like a photograph than like impressionist painting."

In terms of gesture, Richardson points out that the term doesn't refer to the gesture of the artist's hand -- it's not gestural painting in that sense -- but to the gesture of the person observed.

"I'm concerned with appearance," Katz says, "and what I want is the gesture of the person. I let them move, and they do a variety of gestures and come back to something that belongs to them somehow."

In a time when many artists want us to think their work is fraught with levels and layers of significance, Katz's nonmeaning stance may seem downright revolutionary. But then he's always been something of a revolutionary.

Born in 1927 in New York, where he has lived since, he embarked on a career in painting in the early 1950s, when abstract expressionism ruled the art world. He, on the other hand, began making figurative paintings, a decade before pop art came to the fore. It was just doing what came naturally, he reflects now.

"It was instinctive. I felt fully connected with what I was doing, and I wanted to do something in a sense post-abstract," he says.

"The problem was trying to find painting that would go with the inspiration. At first, the art felt great, but the paintings didn't look so good. So I kept changing until the paintings were intellectually adequate."

Gradually, Katz developed a billboard-style form of portraiture, with cropped faces, flat planes and vivid, saturated colors. In part, he was reacting against abstract expressionism, with its psychological richness and its action painting.

Nevertheless, Richardson notes, this representational painting has an abstract side.

"From my perspective, the abstraction comes as much as anything from a distillation to the essence of the form on the canvas. Detail is pretty much eliminated. You've got outline, and you've got shape and color.

"I don't know anyone else who paints like Alex Katz in that way, so stripped down to the essence and still maintaining what's a very recognizable image."

Although best known for his figural work, Katz always has produced work in the landscape genre as well -- both cityscapes in New York and rural landscapes in Maine, where he spends summers.

As with the figural paintings, Katz has developed work on an extremely large scale -- his "Violet Daisies" (1966) is 9 feet tall and more than 6 feet wide; his "Canoe" is 6 feet by 12 feet, and "Winter Landscape" 10 by 20 feet.

They're big, the artist thinks, to engulf people.

"I think they're environmental," he says. "I think when you experience one of those paintings, the imagery is really aggressive and wraps itself around you. You don't look into it; it comes out and wraps itself around you."

Parts of a larger whole

They start very small, however, with a moment and a sketch; and they often seem like parts of a larger whole -- trees cut off at top and bottom, as in "Woods" (1991), or a corner of a house and spots of night light filtering through the darkness, as in "9 pm" (1990).

"I might have looked out the same window for 20 years," Katz says, "and then one day I saw something, and the only problem was to do it."

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