Through his generosity, Alex Katz has arguably made himself into Maine’s most important living artist. He has donated his own paintings, and has actively collected contemporary artists for Maine institutions.
The Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville is ground zero for Katz. While the museum only has about 25 percent of its space open to the public during its expansion construction, it’s still one of the largest and most significant art spaces in Maine.
Colby now features two great Katz shows: One of Katz’s work curated by critic Carter Ratclif, and another of work by other artists selected by Katz. All of the works in latter are somehow associated with Katz or his foundation, except my favorite painting: Lois Dodd’s crispy cold winter nightscape, “Moon Ring.”
Both are excellent shows that reveal much — all good — about Katz.
I had an Alex Katz-as-Maine-artist revelation when I was teaching a class in Seattle. We would go to art shows with an eye towards some particular exhibition aspect and then discuss the topic over dinner. When the docents at the Bellevue Art Museum got wind we were visiting the Katz print exhibition, they asked to join us. Unbeknownst to them, their docent presentation became the subject of that class.
When we came to a work titled “Camp,” a docent explained how the grid of six orange rectangles surrounded by black, but for a tiny wisp of dark-blue night sky seen through the trees, was a campsite with six tents. I was stunned.
When asked about the tent interpretation, the docent produced her script written by the museum’s curator.
But as a Mainer, I think of “a camp” as a house — shack or mansion — on a lake, so I felt myself standing with a lake behind me facing back up towards the house. In fact, I felt myself walking back up to the house from the lake in the pitch dark of a summer night like I have done countless times.
Colby College Museum of Art director Sharon Corwin notes in the “Maine/New York” catalog something I have written before as well: Being a Mainer makes it much easier to understand some of the trickiest stuff in Katz’s paintings.
One of the largest canvases in “Maine/New York” is pure black with that wisp of midnight-blue sky seen through the trees — just like “Camp” but big enough to have its own zip code.
It’s smart enough graphically, but when you stand in front of it and let it do its thing, it envelopes you in the dark of night. It takes the visual world away from you, like when you stand in a completely dark room — or forest.
It’s a reminder that Katz derived his mature content from a fine point of Abstract Expressionism. After all, this is akin to what Barnet Newman wanted his giant paintings to do. (Clyfford Still, Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, as well — to name a few).
Certainly, this isn’t all that Katz is up to, but it delivers the idea of scale, your body as the vessel of the viewer, and a notion of spatial complexity that pushes past painting and into the spatial realms of sculpture, architecture or installation.
Katz’s work isn’t about conscious intellect but rather about sensibility: What things feel like rather than how they appear. Rather than describing accurately, Katz appeals to our subconscious experience.
“Fog 2″ is a large green version of “Camp” with three rectangles. It’s the Maine woods. But “Brown Night” puts a score of orange triangles distantly away on a large apartment building. It’s a very different thing. Your body is once again there, but fleetingly, because the force of urban night photography cannot be stayed for long.
In the other half of Colby’s summer lineup — the show curated by Katz — is a print by Yvonne Jacquette, “Nightscape Woodcut,” that also shows New York at night as a dense landscape whose buildings are presented by the lights of their windows.
As a static view from a tall building, Jacquette’s black-and-white piece is inextricably bound to photography. It’s a jazzy and delicious piece, but it doesn’t touch the personal feel of Katz’s viewpoint, which posits you on the street and on your weary feet.
Katz’s “West 2″ is a similar urban giant, but it’s a commercial building rather than an apartment. The decade I spent in NYC might be behind my sense of immediate recognition, but Katz’s effect is undeniable.
Moreover, there is enough of Katz’s early work in the show to make it clear he had to achieve a certain mental fluency in this language before he could really make his paintings work without needing translation.
The cool brilliance is certainly there in the early work, but Katz had yet to leave behind the sea anchor of his scheming intelligence.
This may seem to explain nothing about Katz’s figurative work, but I hope it opens the door to seeing it like sculpture rather than painting — or spatial plays on “actual size.” Most of the figures are urban others — seen in strained proximity but unknown to (and therefore unengaged by) the viewer.
A girl on a raft might be just someone you quietly pass on a Maine lake — a fleeting glimpse that you, for some reason, remember.
Katz deserves credit for painting himself out of the equation. He doesn’t want you to swoon over his strokes. The work is psychological, but doesn’t assert his personal psyche on the viewer. We are left to our own thoughts — and our own bodies.
Katz’s work is like riding a bike. It’s impossible to explain, and it’s all about the feel. But once you get it, you don’t forget it.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: