Alex Katz’s output in recent years has been both prolific and critically acclaimed and Serpentine Gallery’s current exhibition ‘Quick Light’ showcases exactly why. Drawn from the recent past, idyllic and plentiful landscapes and tantalising cityscapes feel both contemporary and vigorously of the moment of their captured. These are paired with his stylised and boldly coloured portraits of various women, depicted with the vitality of youthful romance.
Ada, Katz’s wife since 1958, for instance, is portrayed with intimacy and familial tenderness in ‘Ada’ (2015). Her skin is vibrant and sun kissed. Her pose exerts supreme confidence and elegance. The hot orange background gives the setting an absurd theatrical quality where the presence of age and beauty seem eternal. This hot orange once again features in ‘Emma’ (2015). In this large horizontal work, Emma, sporting short blonde hair and a leotard appears in six different contorted stretches and states of rest. She floats nonchalantly on top of the background. Her legs and cheekbones catch the light as other elements are plunged into shadow. Katz’s deceptively simplistic aesthetic focuses the viewer on to all that matters at that particular moment: the light cascading down a thigh and over an outstretched foot or the curves of her upper body as she twists and raises her arms behind her head. Katz’s eighty-eight years has assured him of the ability to master the art of the laconic painterly gesture.
Katz’s landscapes are the crux of the exhibition and range from smaller contained compositions to large-scale fragments that border on but never stray into abstraction. Katz is able to capture the visceral essence of the moment. In this way, the viewer is more often than not compelled to find out greater contextual information but such details are deliberately omitted, serving to fetishise the temporal. In ‘West 1’ (1998), a work that is over six-feet long, a black background is broken only by a series of diagonal rectangles of dragged white paint, the only point of direct representation: window frames. The viewer is placed at an unknown vantage point, voyeuristically or perhaps reflectively gazing at a series of tenements in the middle of the night. The viewer is taken by the rhythmic beats of light as well as the possible perversion of intruding on others’ lives without their knowing.
In ‘4 pm’ (2014) the viewer is transported to an area of greenery. The silhouette of a tree twists and shimmers seductively against the aging sun. Further away a bleached grey road curves across the middle of the vertical canvas into the direction of the sun. The light is freely streaked by Katz’s poised brushwork. At the other end of the road, long shadows creep towards the centre of the canvas, yet the interplay between the two, the flatness and prowess of Katz’s mark making, is intoxicating, offering a stylised version of a moment of worldly beauty. The same can be said of ‘Red House 3’ (2013). Here a humble, quaint red house with a bleached white roof and pink chimney stack rises out of the corner of a golden field. Surrounding the house is a darkened forest with billowing areas of layered green brush marks. The sky is a pale blue that has been given a burst of saturation, in the way only a cherished and often revisited memory appears.
Katz’s ability to command the audience with his raw, audacious painting style is staggering. The viewer follows his hand whether it streaks across the canvas, pirouettes or hurriedly builds upon itself in energetic dabs. The traces of Katz’s physical approach to painting are as alluring as the window he offers into the recollected perceptions of his life thus far, where no matter what his work will remain timelessly modern and earnestly contemporary.