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Academy's Maine Man

July 27, 2006 By:
Harriet Goodheart, JE Feature
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"Walking on the Beach," by Alex Katz

Forget the water ice. For a real summertime treat without a trace of artificial flavor, take in "Alex Katz in Maine" at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The exhibition of nearly 40 paintings by the Brooklyn-born artist takes you on a visual vacation to the Maine countryside and coastline where he has lived for part of each year since the 1950s.

The deceptively simple realism of Katz's work suggests an almost pop art, poster-like quality. Flattened, precisely edged patches and planes of color are mysteriously infused with the distinctive Maine light that has clearly captivated the artist since his first visit there on a scholarship for a summer of study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1949.

It was there, he wrote in his 1997 autobiography, that he "first got involved with the Maine light, which is richer and darker than the light in Impressionist paintings. Being able to see Maine light has helped me find my own eyes."

While Katz embraced the luminosity of his newfound and adopted corner of the universe, he retained the cosmopolitan sensibility of his New York roots.

In "Walking on the Beach" (2002), the broad bands of blue sky and dark-blue water, and the length of sand beach that spans nearly the bottom half of the painting, vie for attention with the seven people inscrutably crossing the scene.

As in "Clam Digger" (1958) or "Alex, Ada and Vincent" (1961), which depicts the artist and his wife walking with their young son in her arms, Katz gives you what he sees with no emotional subtext. It's as much what is left unstated as what has been committed to canvas that lures the viewer.

His paintings are on a monumental scale, and sometimes, the larger the picture, the greater its capacity for seductive ambiguity. For instance, "Canoe" (1974) -- which measures 6 feet high by 12 feet wide -- is a curiously striking portrait of a birchbark canoe and its reflection on a pool of deep water. In "Walk Away" (2005) we see three figures from behind on a rural road, their identities, point of departure and destination unknown.

In Katz's own "Self-Portrait" (1991), his head is seen smilingly just above the surface of a lake. His "Yellow House 2" (2001) represents a 12-foot-square rendering of a sunlight-dappled portion of a yellow brick wall of his Lincolnville home, a single window at its center.

It is the penetrating, in-your-face quality of Katz's work -- offset by an impenetrable ambiguity -- that captures and engages the viewer's imagination. It's a delicate balance that the artist strikes so superbly.

"Alex Katz in Maine" continues at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through Sept. 3. For information, call 215-972-7600.

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