Known for Portraits, Alex Katz Is Master of Landscape, Too

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Alex Katz has such a way with light and capturing sense-impression that the minute you look at one of his landscapes, you say to yourself, "I've been there. I know that feeling."

The Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, is hosting a retrospective of Katz's landscapes - works virtually unknown to the American public.

Katz is best known for his Pop Art-influenced portraits, often described as flat, sardonic, and cool.

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But he has been painting landscapes since the early 1950s - from urban night scenes in New York City, where Katz lives, to the woodlands and water views of Maine, where Katz spends his summers. Not surprisingly, Katz's interest in landscapes was piqued while he was attending the Skowhegan School of Painting and sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine, in the late 1940s.

The exhibition, titled "Alex Katz Under the Stars: American Landscapes 1951-1995," is organized somewhat chronologically. It is particularly delightful to go from one of his early, smaller works, such as "Trees" (1951-1952), to the enormous in-your-face paintings he completed during the past five years, such as "Thick Woods, Morning" (126 by 96 in.).

What makes this exhibit exhilarating is the placement of these large works in the museum space. After viewing splendid smaller works in usual gallery fashion, you walk into a large open space and are suddenly swept up in "Apple Blossoms," lost in "Thick Woods, Morning," and basking in "Lake Light."

Turn another corner and you're greeted by gargantuan day lilies in "Superb Lilies #2." To his credit, Katz has said he is particular about installation and wanting a room to look right.

The exhibit here features 34 paintings and 12 collages, with the majority of the paintings completed during the past 15 years.

Viewers gazing into Katz's realms are often made conscious of the time of day - and sometimes the weather - and, of course, the mood the scene triggers. A single bird dive-flying at the beach. Trees silhouetted against a blue sky in "Twilight." Some could be considered cartoonlike celebrations of environment.

The power of a Katz landscape seems to be less in what the picture shows and more in what it does.

As art historian Simon Schama comments in the exhibition catalog: "Katz remains famous for both the intensely painstaking quality of his preparation, and the dazzling, almost impulsive quality of the painting itself, which he himself compares to musical performance: concentrated virtuosity after lengthy and unsparing rehearsal."

* 'Alex Katz Under the Stars: American Landscapes 1951-1995' remains at the Portland Museum of Art through Sept. 14, 1997. It will then be on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art/P.S. 1 Museum in New York, which organized the exhibition, Oct. 5, 1997, through Jan. 12, 1998.

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