Alex Katz: Quick Light

Art, Painting Free
5 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

If you put all clever, jargon-filled analysis to one side, paintings of any kind tend to provoke one of two basic reactions in people. The first is: ‘I could do that.’ (Or just as often: ‘My five-year-old could do that.’ I worry about the pressure being put on these kids.) The second is: ‘I wish I could do that.’ The Serpentine’s new show of American artist Alex Katz will send you on a hell of a journey from one to the other.

Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Katz came of age in a New York where abstract expressionism was in the middle of supplanting the old realists, and the anarchy of pop lay around the corner. In between, he developed an oeuvre which made nods to all three, while also being entirely its own thing.

He’s best known for his portraits of friends and family: warm, crooked hybrids of naturalism and illustration. It’s in these that Katz’s playfulness comes through, especially in pictures such as ‘Vivien’ (pictured, 2015) , which shows his subject  in six different poses. But at the Serpentine – and all credit to them – it’s Katz’s landscapes, which usually play second fiddle, that really shine.

It’s easy to heap praise on an 89-year-old artist for still working on canvases nearly 20 feet wide, but that does a disservice to him, because the simple fact is that they’re also very, very good. The work in the gallery’s central space, in particular, will knock the air from your chest. Katz has frequently likened his work to poetry, and there’s something haiku-like in his ability to record transient events – leaves floating on the surface of a brook; moonlight threading the branches of trees – in a series of seemingly glib swipes and dabs. And this glibness, this deceptive shorthand, is in each and every piece, whether it’s a smudged track of black and pink describing a frizzy curtain of hair, or square slabs of white applied with a flat-ended brush resembling the windows of an apartment.

But while these pictures have such broad appeal (seriously, if they don’t make you smile then you probably go home and charge yourself at the mains each night), it’s never at the expense of innovation. Especially the most recent works, where Katz pushes his pictures to within a hair’s-breadth of out-and-out abstraction – it makes them as sophisticated as they are seductive. From a distance, they’re hip, bright, cheerful images of an artist’s day-to-day life. Up close, they’re a reminder that painting is, and always has been, an infinitely complex process of pushing coloured mud around on a surface. This is profound stuff. No matter how much it wants to convince you otherwise.


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