Pretty and yet unsatisfying Review: Alex Katz's calculated paintings at the BMA too often feel empty. He'd have it no other way. We would.

June 19, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The recently opened exhibit of Alex Katz landscapes at the Baltimore Museum of Art reveals an art in which there is a maximum of decoration and a minimum of communication. Decoration, we often forget, is one of the purposes of art, and this is decoration of a high order. But these paintings leave the viewer finally unsatisfied: They permit you the pleasure of their presence; they don't really engage you.

During a career of more than 40 years, Katz has become best known for his billboard-style figural works, characterized by cropping, flat planes and intense colors. But throughout the years he has also pursued landscape painting, as the current show demonstrates by tracing his work in the genre back to the small oils and collages of the 1950s.

His mature style is characterized by large canvases (up to 10 by 20 feet), typically showing a portion of a landscape that looks arbitrarily cut out of something larger and yet complete in itself in the sense of being adequate to the effects the artist intends to achieve.

The principal interest of these works lies in those effects. Among other things, Katz reveals a mastery of manipulating light, sometimes flickering ("Thick Woods, Morning," 1992), sometimes blinding ("Lake Light," 1992).

There's always a tension in these works between two- and three-dimensionality and between representation and a kind of abstraction of artifice. In "Woods" (1991), we are aware that the foreground leaves float on the surface of the canvas rather than in space.

Space in the painting is indicated in part by smaller trees introduced in the distance behind the larger ones in the foreground, but we're also aware that the distant ones are

merely strokes of paint; there's no attempt to make them look like trees, either realistically or impressionistically. Even foreground trees, like the buildings in other paintings, impart little sense of volume. Paint may indicate a highlight, but it also remains paint. Objects, whether a branch, a window or a bird, become stylized design elements, and some of these works, such as "Purple Wind" (1995) look more than a little like stage sets.

Cropping adds to the sense of the carefully calculated. In "Gold and Black # 2" (1993), as elsewhere, trees are cut off top and bottom and float in front of an unreal background without earth, sky or horizon.

And as these paintings provide no physical beginning or end of the scene that they put before us, they look as if they have been ripped out of time as well. There's light in them, but little sense of weather or time of day or of the things that anchor a scene in the specific.

In short, these works refer to the real world, but render it with such self-conscious artificiality that the artifice becomes an end in itself -- these are works about their artifice.

As such, they offer undeniable attractions. They are chic, seductive and appealing; they neither invite nor accept emotional investment, so their effect is one of coldness and impersonality, but on their own narrow terms it is usually hard to fault them.

Now and then, they become a bit too affected to best serve their purposes. The leaves that drift across the surface of "Late July" (1967) disport themselves so balletically that one suspects them of being fugitives from an animated film. The two halves of "9 PM" look uncomfortable together, as if they originally belonged to two other pictures. Katz's cityscapes have been compared to 1930s precisionist paintings by artists such as Ralston Crawford and Charles Sheeler; but the pink atmosphere of "New Year's Eve" (1990) and the blue sky of "Soho Morning" (1987) soften and weaken these works, at least in terms of that comparison.

And then there are times when the work breaks through. The spontaneity and enthusiasm emanating from "Apple Blossoms" (1994) make nearby works look even more dryly contrived than they might otherwise. This painting reminds one of Katz's early works, such as "Two Trees" (1955) or "Pink Landscape" (1954). Like them, "Apple Blossoms" looks alive and even risk-taking rather than embalmed in its own perfection; it possesses the note of humanity so lacking in Katz's more perfectly finished works.

Alex Katz

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Sept. 8

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

Call: (410) 396-7100

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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