LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Alex Katz’s paintings are all about pleasure, but not so fast: Those pleasures are far from simple, the breezy, elegant sophistication of his smooth surfaces simmering with mystery, and even unease. Let’s call it a rigorous pleasure — work that seduces with color and style, and then sets you adrift in the satisfying complications of their internal worlds.
Katz was born in 1927, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, raised in the working-class quarters of Brooklyn and Queens. If that seems a long way from Lincolnville, where the artist has spent many months for nearly 70 years, well, it is. For Katz, who pursued the hard light and soft forms of sea and sky and cloud, it was a retreat destined to happen.
When he was at school at New York’s Cooper Union in the 1940s, Modernism was in full bloom and Abstract Expressionism ascendant. Katz struggled with the dominance of abstraction, found it lurid and showy and, by the late 1940s, more or less everywhere. A semester spent at Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1949 showed him it didn’t have to be that way — that a painter could find a universe, still, in figure and landscape and light.
An Henri Matisse exhibition came to town while he was a student at Cooper Union, he recalled in a recent interview with the Guardian newspaper. “The teacher said ‘He’s an old man now, but he’s a still a pretty good painter,’” said Katz, 92, who still paints almost every day. “So I went there and I collapsed. It was the technique — it was no effort. And I said ‘That’s the way I want painting to be.’”
But don’t be fooled. Is there no effort in “Harbor #9,” a quintessential summer scene of seaside bliss? Katz might make it look effortless, but it’s not the same thing. It was painted in 1999, probably in Maine, though its high-altitude haze and hard light on sun-seared sands could be almost any beach up and down the coast. I can tell you where it’s not: Lincolnville Beach, nearest to Katz’s studio, where the ocean peels back at low tide to reveal a pebbly gray bottom stretching to a nearby industrial pier.
The pleasure of a Katz painting is in the seductive quality of enigma, the mystery at the heart of his plainspoken pictures that catches you unaware. That much, and a love of flowers and unnaturally bright colors he shares with his British contemporary, the irrepressible David Hockney (who is also still working, a relative pup at 82). What they also share is a gift for complicated confection, with scenes as sweet as candy floss that appear light as air. Your eye registers color, simple figures — cut-outs, really — promising effortless viewing paired to effortless painting.
I long saw Katz as a guilty pleasure — hypnotizing prettiness, unburdened from critical references to mass and consumer culture of contemporaries like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. But his work rewards looking longer. Katz has always packed his crisp compositions with ripples of hidden depths — cartoons torqued just enough to remind you that the medium is the message. And the medium is something Katz toys with, with sly aplomb. I look at where the sky falls to land in “Harbor #9” and I wonder about blocky color field abstraction, Abstract Expressionism’s last gasp, its pretensions of purity withered by both the rise of conceptualism and a return to representation (which Katz no doubt enjoyed). But I also see the near-abstract landscapes of his idol Matisse, who never stopped painting places, people, and things, even as abstraction took hold. Katz works at that crossroads — between abstract and realism, between the history of painting and everyday life. It makes for a beach more complex than it may seem, but in the end it’s still a beach, with sand and sea and luminous sky. He’s never divided art from life, nor for a moment placed one above the other.
By accident of timing, Katz arrived at the precise moment when old man Matisse was yielding his Modernist crown to the muscular upstarts of Abstract Expressionism. (Matisse’s twin engine, Pablo Picasso, never yielded anything to anybody, for better or worse, but that’s another story.) Katz, having declared his allegiance, stood off to the side, painting big colors and smooth, sharp scenes while the art world became enamored of thick gestural mess. It’s tempting to think of him as the bridge from abstraction into the heady cheekiness of pop art; and sure, you can see him as Warhol with the edges sanded down. But I doubt he’d see it that way. Katz was always modern, in his own way, when dogma of the day allowed for no such individuality.
And we haven’t even gotten to the good part. “Harbor #9″ is Maine because it has to be, Katz’s sensibilities honed by life along a coast where the particularities of huge skies and dark waters arch over the undulations of a forested shore like nowhere else. “Harbor #9″ almost feels like Katz keeping a secret from the uninitiated — a slice of perfect shoreline slyly cast as almost anywhere, though it could only be here. (Similarly, his ubiquitous paintings of blossoms seem unmoored in the particular until you see the scrubby gnarls of beach roses that grow willy-nilly on the state’s every island and coastline.)
Look at the central figure — his odd, hunted look, his discomfort, an arm tucked behind his back. Did you notice that he’s balancing on one foot? It slipped past me at first, but when I saw the splash of shadow below his toes, it became the only thing I could see. Smudges mark mini-dunes, from a footfall or beach ball or posterior planted in the sand, the sun marking their place with pools of shadow. A half dozen discrete conversations play out as the poor guy twists, uneasily, amid their seaside oblivion.
It’s a simplified, stylized scene — a cartoon, but somehow not. It brims with a sense of moment while toying with its own form — its imperceptible layers, its sleekness, its shapes carved sharp like hard-edge Modernism. That’s the alchemy of a Katz painting as it reveals itself in a strange, simultaneous cascade of difference that inevitably lands at pleasure, distilled and refined. “The immediate present is, for me, an eternity,” Katz said at a public talk in Damariscotta, Maine, in 2015. He isn’t pursuing an epic sweep of history, the monumental, the allegorical, the symbolic. His time is forever now.