Alex Katz: Maine/New York

By: Carl Little

Colby College Museum of Art • Waterville, ME • • July 14–December 30, 2012

Alex Katz, West 2, 1988, oil on linen, 126 x 240″.

Since the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz opened in 1996, the Colby College Museum has mounted numerous exhibitions in the artist’s honor. The museum has drawn on its extensive Katz holdings and hosted traveling and focused shows, playing a variety of thematic angles, an M.O. similar to what the Farnsworth Art Museum has followed for the Wyeth family.

This time around, Katz’s well-known dual citizenship—New York City and Lincolnville, Maine—is highlighted. The Brooklyn-born painter first found his green acres at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1949, part of a distinguished line of artists who came, saw and stayed (at least seasonally).

The exhibition traces Katz’s development as a painter of the pastoral, from several lovely small loose oils from the 1950s of fields, family, and Camden to the large and often stunning paintings of recent years—pieces like Reflection with Lilies II (2010), which, if you didn’t know the title, might be viewed as an abstract composition. Katz’s Maine can be soft focus and sweet; his airbrushed seagulls contrast sharply with Jamie Wyeth’s demonic Monhegan variety.

The Manhattan work also starts out rather freely: January 4 (1962), in oil, brings to mind Lois Dodd’s painterly window studies. The stylized figures soon emerge (and arise): the iconic sun-glassed, evenly coiffed friends and family (including wife Ada) that are Katz’s bread and butter. The painter’s sense of place shines in several night views of the city where he has distilled Hopper’s existential vision to a few lighted windows in a black surround.

Carter Ratcliff’s catalogue essay ties the two bodies of work together through the idea of capturing an image “by a glance”—an idea echoed by the artist in a transcribed conversation with Colby Museum director Sharon Corwin, where Katz describes getting involved “in trying to paint the immediate present.” This aesthetic often matches the viewing experience of comprehending Katz’s fleeting moments.

—Carl Little

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