I went to see the Alex Katz exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on July 28, 2012. I realize this is old news because the exhibition has been closed for a month. It is important to me, though, because I was able to revisit my days of art history appreciation and reflection on items painted, drawn, sculpted or otherwise created. Far away was I from the printed word, where I am most at home.
Since I have an interest in art and have begun dabbling with my colored pencils and pastels lately, I cannot strictly say I am a writer. I now say that I create. I cannot pigeonhole myself as a “writer,” or “photographer.” The more creators I look up to, the more I realize they are talented in various media, constantly and consistently dabbling. J.K. Rowling can both write great prose for young adult readers and draw. Andy Warhol created with film, print making, paintings, sculpture and more. There are countless examples. Great artists experiment, pushing past limitations. Ultimately, some of their creative pursuits rise to the top and they quickly become recognized for achievement in that one medium.
Katz is no different. I saw many prints by Katz, in a variety of different printmaking techniques. I also took in drawings, sculpture, and mixed media. He became a talented artist during a time of change in the art world. Abstract Expressionist was the hot, new style on the block. Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline all were working during the mid to late 1950s and 1960s. Katz successfully straddles two worlds, realism and the abstraction that was popular at the time. One of the many portraits of his wife, Ada, titled “Ada in Hat” embodies this tension, yet still, keeps its integrity as a work of art by Alex Katz. The brush strokes, showing the popular bob hairdo and pill box hat, evoke those painted strokes by Kline or Motherwell. They are singular, deliberate brushstrokes, carefully wrought to appear accidental. The brushstrokes show the movement of the hairs, as if blowing in a light breeze. Katz’s brushstroke tips its hat to the current abstract expressionist movement, while keeping the voice of artist, one of reality and elegance, intact. It is a beautiful piece that I lingered by for a long time.
Other works were more explicitly abstract in their nature and their creation. You can see his process which is clearly more modern. There is less emphasis pointing us toward a story to solicit emotion, and more emphasis on the strokes and structure, making the viewer feel something while viewing it. His process of print making really shows the artist’s work, showing the audience his work, like a chemist or mathematician. The audience sees this in one of his prints in the “Twilight” series, where the three panels were laid out by the Museum curators for viewers to see the three screens that make the whole.
At the same time, the way Katz titles his pieces, it is clear he wants the works based in real time, capturing fleeting moments, like the swish of a woman hair or the moment before sun descends below the horizon. They are not untitled which is common among modern, abstract works. An untitled piece, in my opinion, allows the viewer to feel what he or she wants and name it what they wish. One person may see anger, while another may feel anxiety. Katz does not allow for that to happen in many of his pieces. He titles his pieces because of his interest in time and temporality. Katz takes the reins, instead, and tells us what he depicts in each work. Perhaps, he is controlling or perhaps, he wants to personalize his works. Specifically, the series Sunset: Lake Wesserunsett IV, 1972, shows his expressionist side set in a realist context, anchored in time. The change in each of the prints in the series is each slightly different, as the sun descends.
Another series of prints that focused on capturing a moment were a set of tight, cropped images of his wife wearing a plaid coat. Also a commentary on the emphasis of advertising and the Mad Men culture at the time, the series seems like a flip book of images made to animate the figure, Ada, in her plaid coat. Allowing your imagination to take this a step further, you could easily see this featured as a Fall television commercial for Macy’s or Filene’s. It was a quick snapshot of a few ‘moments in a life’ that Katz wanted to keep for a lifetime.
Katz highlights the moments that we frequently forget about or miss altogether because they are so very fleeting and ephemeral. The visit to the museum was a gentle reminder to stop, take a breathe, pause and realize these moments.