Thursday, 19 March 2009

Alex Katz

Purple Wind, 1995
Oil on Canvas 90 x 66 inches

Not Seen

I have only seen this painting in photographic reproduction, which isn’t ideal for such a large work. What is worse is that I missed the chance to see it in Dublin in 2007 at an exhibition of Katz’s work at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and so far I have been unable to establish where the painting is now. I presume it is in private hands.

However, I have seen many of Katz’s paintings and although these were mainly his conversation pieces I can appreciate that his work is much more painterly than it appears in reproduction. The other thing I noticed, and I am sure applies to this piece, is the economy with which he paints. In other words, he lets the qualities of the brushwork and paint work to describe the content. You stand too close and all you see is paint, but when you stand back, the marks resolve into the image. In his landscapes and cityscapes, particularly those with trees, this is done with the simplest of touches. His technique of using the properties of the medium, reminds me more of Chinese brush painting than minimal abstraction of his “people paintings”.

The construction of the painting is easy to determine, but requires an experienced hand to execute with confidence on this scale. The ground colour is a flat purple and then rectangles of paint for the lit windows are painted wet into wet with single brush strokes of thin White with a little Naples Yellow. A black line is than drawn across each rectangle to represent the window frame and then used with a larger brush for the branches of a tree. Finally white highlights are added to the branches and dabs of white applied to the windows suggesting the interior lighting. We know it is just paint, yet as Merlin James notes in his commentary on the painting in the 25 year of Katz’s work, “there is a compelling illusion of space and presence behind the windows, and the image transcends the merely diagrammatic”.[1]

The painting is large and probably sized to mimic the windows in the apartment block opposite, exploring the idea of a painting as a window that we look through onto another world. It is night time, and Katz invites us to join him as voyeurs, overlooking the lives of the occupants in the manner of the Hitchcock film “Rear Window”. The tree silhouetted against the darkness beyond helps create a sense of distance between where we stand and the observed building. The looseness with which the branches are painted helps convey the sense of their movement in the wind. As we stand and look across the divide, our isolation becomes apparent; there is no one to be seen, and no matter how long we look, we will remain alone.

[1] James, Merlin Alex Katz, 25 Years of Painting, The Pole Green Press 1997.

©blackdog 2009


  1. The longer I look at this painting (after having magnified), the more fascinating it is, and your detailed comment is a very goold help to 'approach' to the painting! The title is as inspiring- poetical as the purple night in a big city like New York with the illuminated windows of a business building. (I remember the expression of a pupil who described the night sky above a city as 'red'- and he was right- I could imagine that I now could see a purple toning of the night!) I combine some associations with this colour: mystery, surprise, wonder, death, cold, darkness, sadness and "looseness" (considering the bare branches, feeling the wind, the monotony of the windows). You are right, there is no one to be seen- I can only imagine that people while sitting in front of their computers are communicating with people or "friends" (what an inflationary use of this term in our times!) from all over world by all High Tech possibilities (E-Mail, Blogs, Scype, Facebook....)- I' m not sure if that can remove the isolation- the 'language' of the painting seems to be another one: the cold wind , the "distance", the inpenetrability- rather a kafkaesque atmosphere! In some way the painting reminds me of paintings of Edward Hopper.

  2. Katz is clearly drawn to the isolation and sophistication of New York, and Hopper is another one who invites us to be voyeurs - he too is very fond of the figures at the window. They also both verge on illustration but I think with Katz, his flat treatment hides the painterly quality behind the surface restraint.