Katz Prints MFA Boston
There is a strange feeling that permeates through the new Alex Katz Prints exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, one that is similar to being in a room where everybody speaks a different language than you. In this case the dissociation derives from visual, rather than auditory, means.
The first few rooms of the exhibit are filled with hundreds of portraits. Subjects of the portraits are of a wide variety, including the artist’s family, friends, acquaintances, unidentified characters, a dog and a bull. These characters are familiar and common, so it isn’t their faces that make the viewer feel like an outsider looking in. It’s how their faces are illustrated.
The clean and cool prints of Alex Katz, with striking individuality in characters and content, share a common pop art flavor that often, especially in Katz’s portraits, place the image in the heart of the American dream sometime in the 1950s.
Between and beside all of the prints consuming the exhibit are the words of fellow artists and writers speaking about Katz’s work. Many of these words belong to the museum’s Department Chair of Prints Drawings and Photographs, and Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Curator of Prints and Drawings, Clifford S. Ackley.
Ackley describes Katz’s mental approach that helps him create his precise and polished imagery. On a wall in the exhibit, Ackley is quoted as saying, “He [Katz] is often less interested in expressing the individual characteristics of the various techniques than in creating a relatively smooth, uninflected surface.”
As humans do, these portraits all share certain indistinguishable traits, which are the traits of the style in which they are created, yet they are all still unique. A repeated character is Ada, his wife who is often described as his muse. She has a different appearance and is treated differently in every piece that she appears in. This dynamic is most prevalent in the last room of the exhibit.
“Rush” is an installation of oil paintings created in 1971, recently donated to the museum. It is an all-white room with simple head shot illustrations seemingly floating in a straight row across each wall.
Between “Rush” and the first few rooms of portraits is the other side of Katz universe, his landscapes. These landscapes are often subtle and have the ability to capture the simple beauties of the scenes depicted without delving into the great detail offered in real life.
The first of these that really stands out, almost as a transition piece between the portraits and landscapes, is a screenprint image “Reflection.” In it one can see simply dark water highlighted by the moonlight. A closer look at the light exposes the visibility of numerous faces.
The images continue on with beautiful landscapes, many of which are inspired by Katz’s summer home in Lincolnville, Maine. He spends the rest of the year living at his loft in SoHo.
Katz is a New York city native, having grown up in the Queens suburb, St. Albans. He has attended a variety of art schools and programs as both a student and teacher.
The variety that Katz has inside of his very distinct and honed style is noteworthy as a disciplined creativity. His methods, used for pieces in the exhibit, include aquatint, screenprint, photo-offset, lithograph, Japanese woodcut and variations and combinations of all listed.
Katz’s exploration of so many printing techniques, along with his prolific career of approximately 60 years and counting make him an admirable figure in the art world. He exemplifies progress and identity, and his work is a testament to the age-old artistic philosophy: Just create, create, create.
He also challenges the norm with some incredibly simple pieces whose few shapes and influences on the landscape convey powerful ideas. These are the type of works that some conservatives would see and ask, “How is that art?”
“The Harbor” is a Katz print that beautifully captures the nature of a ship innocently floating in a mass of water by simply cutting them out of vast orange. With work like this, Katz simplicity asks right back, “How is it not?”
Katz looks at the world, takes what he finds beautiful in it and shows it to the rest of the world. The act of capturing that beauty, nothing less and nothing more, is what allows his work to creep up on you with quiet genius.
In a video on Light, posted on the MFA Boston website, Katz tells the camera, “Sunsets were really hard. Every night I would do one around 7:30-7:45, and they were all a little different.”
He then goes on to describe how he would have to paint the sunsets in the dark because the use of any light would compromise the image of the sunset itself. So he couldn’t see what he was painting at the time and would have to go back and touch it up later.
It’s jarring and fascinating walking into the Alex Kats Prints exhibit because you’re walking into his mind. All of the elements used are real in our world and recognizable, but they are simplified with emphasis on character and what the artist seems to love.
The exhibit, in the words of Ackley, “Originated at Vienna’s renowned Albertina collection of graphic art, known drawings by old masters and, increasingly, contemporary artists.”
The exhibit will be at the Gund Gallery at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts until July 29, 2012.