Nicole Wittenberg makes images that punch you in the face. She says she is working to make paintings that hit “all at once, rather than opening in time”. Alex Katz’s paintings overwhelm you that way, although silently, like a dancer leaping to center stage. The legendary painter must recognize this in her work, for three of her pieces are currently up in “Nowhere But Here: Art from the Alex Katz Foundation” a selection of contemporary art he gifted to Colby College in Maine.
In the large central gallery Wittenberg’s three “heads” hold their own along side a gooey Chantal Joffe baby, Elizabeth Peyton’s etchings with their china doll eyes, and a steely Chuck Close tapestry—an impressive feat for this young painter. These three monoprints are variations on the same image of a face, slightly lowered and looking away. To make them Wittenberg lays printing glass over an ink study and paints in the images, allowing her to condense certain structural marks in unusual and counterintuitive ways so that instead of feeling modeled out of brushwork, they seem to be whirled onto the surface.
If you look closely at the magnificent large Katz’s in the adjacent gallery, you can see the delicate stippled dots he uses to transfer his design from preparatory drawing onto canvas. Once marked out structurally he is free to lay down marks swiftly and with utmost economy so that they appear to just happen, as though by “wind blowing across a surface” as deKooning desired.
Wittenberg’s new images have a lot to do with architectural space. In her studio are new eight foot paintings of a New York office building, transformed into a high-contrast surface, almost a relief, with increasingly thick paint. Wittenberg ambitiously yearns for a city-sized scale, as Katz achieves brilliantly—installing his billboard paintings in Time Square in 1977, for example, but also in the architectural spaces he has developed to show his work at Colby, the walls are skinned in light grey stucco (the artist calls this “contemporary velvet”—it absorbs light allowing the smooth skins of his paintings to glow) and take you into their expansive environments—a kind of “scenic painting”.
Of different generations (with at least one in between them) these two painters
embody “style” as an ideal. Indeed, their style expresses a worldview on the surface of their paintings.
Nicole Wittenberg is still aggressively forming her idiom, and the three pieces in this show are a promise of major work to come, as the premise of the exhibition suggests—Katz showing what he’s excited about that’s happening now.
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— contributed by Jarrett Earnest