ParisAlex Katz: Mondes flottants / Floating Worlds, curated by Eric de Chassey
Seven years after the retrospective showcasing portraits by Alex Katz in Pantin, and before his 2022 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Thaddaeus Ropac presents an exhibition focused on the theme of water, an element that pervades the work of the great American painter. Curated by Eric de Chassey, Director of the Institut National de l’Histoire de l’Art in Paris, Mondes Flottants / Floating Worlds brings together some fifty works created between 1989 and 2020. From seascapes to studies of light and reflections on water, these often monumental paintings challenge the traditional notion of landscape, questioning what is reality and what is illusion.
Alex Katz began painting small seaside landscapes in the late 1950s. In these early works, flat patches of colour thwart basic notions of perception, paving the way for pictorial experimentations that he would develop on a larger scale only in the 1990s. The earliest painting in the exhibition, Black Brook 2 (1989), inaugurates a new body of images, marked by ambiguity. Although equally rooted in reality as his previous paintings, the motif of the brook is abstracted in the work, making it more difficult to decipher than earlier compositions.
Often produced during Alex Katz’s summer stays in Maine, these works are part of a tradition of painting, sur le motif, that started with the Impressionists and led to the birth of Modernism. In 2009, he created a series of paintings – two of which are presented in the exhibition – that pays tribute to Claude Monet. Unlike his portraits, these paintings are not made using 1:1 cartoons that he transfers to a primed canvas and punctures with a tool to map the basic outline of the motif on the surface. This method is a modern take on the Renaissance technique of pouncing, which was developed for fresco painting. Instead, the landscapes are almost direct transpositions of preparatory studies to large format. The small oil sketches painted from life reveal an intimate aspect of his practice. For Alex Katz, ‘a sketch is very direct. It’s an empirical way of working within an idea.’ Used mainly in oil paintings, this wet-on-wet technique requires a quick method of working, as the composition must be finished before the first layers have dried. Transposed to a monumental scale, Alex Katz’s affinity for quick execution gives form to a reality that is reduced to its most essential features.
In Floating Worlds, the subject almost disappears. Here and there characters appear, dotted around the composition like cartoons, but most often the space seems empty. Water is present in all its forms: the breaking water of waves, the flowing water of streams, the stagnant water of ponds and, above all, the water which reflects reality in an inverted, troubled and constantly changing image. Alex Katz follows a long line of modern painters who, starting from a meticulous observation of nature, have embarked on another path.
all images © the gallery and the artist(s)