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Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna. Photograph © Albertina, Vienna; Peter Ertl. Art © 2011 Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
“Blue Umbrella,” now on view at the MFA, depicts Alex Katz’s wife and muse, Ada.
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Alex Katz Prints

Alex Katz

Museum of Fine Arts, Gund Gallery

April 28, 2012 - July 29, 2012

Free with MIT ID

I’m sure that most of us are familiar with the “experimental” nature of contemporary art. While some of these works are stimulating, when I consider the great paintings from the Renaissance or the Impressionists in comparison to conceptual art and other modern art movements, I sometimes wonder if figure painting will ever “come back.”

Enter Alex Katz.

Katz was born in 1927, studied at The Cooper Union (a small college in New York City which only has three schools: architecture, art, and engineering), and then at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. He was able to find his own way in a time of abstract expressionism by making portraiture just as expressive and invigorating as the work of his contemporaries. His works are reductive, with subtle modeling in the face and an emphasis on form and color. Sometimes the faces he paints seem distorted, but it doesn’t really matter. His point is to capture the essence of each figure, which he certainly does with his biting color schemes.

Katz first creates his works as paintings and then transforms many of them into prints, which is the bulk of the current exhibit at the MFA. If his paintings are already reductions of life, these prints are even more simplified. By distilling the painting into a print, the vibrant color he uses is even more emphasized.

The print genre allows the artist to experiment with different colors on the same subject and Katz has done exactly that. You’ll see the same picture in a range of styles throughout the exhibit; from prints in monochrome to a variety of colors.

Those who have visited the MFA recently have likely seen their new contemporary wing and noticed how different it is from the rest of the museum — the modern style aligns well with the art. The MFA is doing a good job of putting us headfirst into the world of the art, especially in their special exhibitions (I’m thinking specifically of the Chihuly show from last year). I was excited to see how they would portray Katz’s works, and was pleasantly surprised.

Instead of organizing the works chronologically, the curators chose to make the focus of each separate room a different theme from Katz’s prints. The rooms focus on depictions of his family, specifically on Ada (his wife and muse), landscapes, fashion, and his connection with poetry. Every time you enter a new room you are thrust into a new world.

This effect is most obvious in the room that displays Rush, a portrait series composed of 37 painted aluminum cut-out heads hanging on the wall at eye-level. Upon entering the room, you’re surrounded by floating heads on all sides. Each has a different expression, and some are of different proportions, but somehow they all seem real. Each portrait is of an important cultural figure from the 1960s or 1970s, including people from dance, literature, music, art, and art criticism. It’s a little overwhelming. You feel like you’ve gone back in time — you’re having a conversation with one of these figures and you’re becoming more and more cultured by the second.

My favorite painting by Katz has always been “Blue Umbrella,” which depicts Ada in a patterned red scarf holding a blue umbrella in the rain. While the title might make you focus on the umbrella at first, it’s really impossible to tear your eyes away from the detail in the scarf. Once you look even closer, you see Ada’s melancholy expression which seems to match the weather she’s in. The rain is illusionary — you know that it’s outside the umbrella and in the foreground, yet the single drop placed by her eye makes you wonder if she might be crying.

Even though his prints are so distilled, so “simple,” his portraits have a soul and a profound beauty. They’re obviously two-dimensional — but they’re also alive. Katz is primarily a colorist, and the vividness of his prints makes it even more important that they’re viewed in person. You won’t get the same effect from Google images, no matter how good your screen’s resolution is.