Alex Katz was once told by his father as he was assessing one of his works, ‘Paint Your Own Backyard’, a simple off the cuff statement which in reflection can be used to assess a lineage of painting in the 20th and 21st centuries. Looking at the work of Alex Katz, Alice Neel, David Hockney, Jonas Wood and Henry Taylor we begin to look at a legacy of artists who have chosen to depict the world via the people, places, things and events immediately in front of them. The choice to document these subjects through the act of painting and drawing creates a visual legacy that is a reflection not only of the time in which the artist is working but also of the artist personally, via the inclusion and active exclusion of imagery. Painting from life in a time when many artists look the other direction on classic methodology, towards the conceptual, minimal, abstract and loosely defined New Media, these artists look to capture the world around them. The way in which each of these artists approaches the individual and the modern landscape is what makes them so unique and engaging to the wider public. Creating a lineage through time and space, each artist in this exhibition is connected either as an inspiration by their choice of mannerism or simply by geographic location. Each artist brings a unique eye, brushstroke, and story to the greater history of figuration and what it means to be a painter of life in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Alex Katz’s paintings depict life on the American East Coast through portraits of his family and friends as well as the landscapes of his native New York and rural Maine. Ada, the artist’s wife, is a frequent subject of Katz’s paintings either in individual portraits or part of a larger group. Some of these works are titled directly Ada, such as the work in this exhibition, in other works we are given the visual signifier but the title is more atmospheric, referencing not the person but rather the mood of the day or the place itself. Beyond Ada, the reoccurring characters within his paintings are often Katz’s immediate family and friends. Vincent Walking, 2005, a small study painting, is such an example; depicted is the artist’s son walking along a sunny country path. Focusing on the beauty of life in people and places, Katz’s work has a wide appeal, capturing the particular moment or interaction in a day. The works are composed strategically and painted quickly. The artist works across a variety of media from paper to small paintings on board or canvas to full scale works with larger than life figures. Katz is a master at scaling up from one medium to the next. Each body of work is connected to the other, but at the same time one can look at the works on paper and both small and large paintings as independent bodies of work within the artist’s long career. It is the line quality which Katz brings to his subject that makes his paintings so engaging. While the persons or places in his paintings are familiar to the artist and perhaps the viewer, the hard lines and colour palette create a distance from the subject, thus creating its own subjective familiarity. The smaller studies Katz creates can be read like snapshots, executed in a day, mirroring the execution of Impressionist painting. In this manner, the brushstroke is looser than that of the larger works, creating a feeling that the image before us is part of our own memory, rather than that of the painter. It is through this play with the familiar and distant that we can see how “few American artists have so thoroughly scrambled, as Katz has, the concepts of being traditional and being modern” (Stanford Schwartz in: Exhibition Catalogue, London Timothy Taylor Gallery, Alex Katz: Small Paintings 1951 - 2002, 2002) and it is this play which makes Katz’s work so engaging and inspiring to a younger generation of painters such as Henry Taylor and Jonas Wood.
Taking inspiration from painters such as Alex Katz, David Hockney and Lucian Freud, Jonas Wood paints from his studio in Los Angeles, depicting the life inside and moving out into the world at large. The line quality, angles and colour palette clearly indicate how strong of an influence both Katz and Hockney are to Wood. Painting from life and memory, there are many reoccurring themes which begin to overlap with one another; pots made by his wife, the ceramicist Shio Kusaka, plants, the physical interior of their shared studio, portraits of friends, family, fellow artists and the interiors of both friends and art collectors close to the artist. Paintings within paintings, references to a source image for another work or a potted plant in the background, Wood’s world is a constant cycle of inspiration. Images derived from Wood’s personal and immediate world are balanced with images of sports stars and famous sporting venues. The source imagery for these portraits and landscapes is usually captured from TV broadcast or from sports books and trading cards, rather than in person. Noted as being a passionate sports fan, the works are of foreign places and celebrity athletes, but still speak to the personal interests and life of Wood. Such is the case in French Open I, 2011 which depicts the clay Centre Court at Roland Garros in Paris, during the annual Grand Slam tournament. The paintings of Grand Slam Tennis Courts from around the world become their own body of landscape paintings, within Wood’s greater oeuvre. Devoid of players, the tennis court paintings instead focus on the lines and colours of the court with the advertisements and seating making up the background. Where French Open focuses on an iconic tennis stadium known the world over, Untitled (New Pot), 2007, takes its subject from closer to home. The painting is a depiction of a pot by Shio Kusaka, the artist’s wife. Her functional art objects are often the sole subject in Wood’s still-life works and paintings of plants. It is the ability of Wood to vary his subject matter in a way that “the most intimate can intersect with the most public” (Cecilia Alemani in: Anton Kern Gallery, Ed., Jonas Wood: Sports Book, New York 2008, p. 4). Each work, both macro and micro has a universal connection, which resonates with the viewer on a different and independent level, all the while giving insight into the artist’s personal life.
Travelling from England to Los Angeles, David Hockney gained notoriety for his depictions of Los Angeles’ back yard pools and the people who inhabited his immediate new found home in the American west. From the backyards of Los Angeles to the backwoods of Yorkshire the world where Hockney is at present has, always been a main influence. This can be true of the people who were most immediate in his life. Looking to the past and inwards to art history, Hockney appropriates brushstrokes and concepts of Mattisse and Picasso and applies them to a contemporary view of what a landscape painting can be. Hockney’s The Fifth V.N. Painting, 1992 is a landscape based on a stage backdrop for the Royal Opera House in London and takes inspiration from the hills of Los Angeles looking out into the Pacific Ocean. The fantasy of theatre and the artist’s vision of the world are blended together in this abstracted landscape, rich with vibrant colours and strong lines. Observing the world around him, Cubist Bistro is an informal rendering of the world around the artist. As Wood does today with his interiors of art collectors’ homes, Hockney also turned his eye towards the collectors and gallerists who made up his immediate professional world. Many times Hockney would choose to capture the collectors and art dealers who represented him commercially. This act of painting collectors and gallerists deviates from the traditional painter-patron-relationship and pushes forward the idea of engaging with the immediate surroundings. It is thanks to Hockney’s ability to move between loose figurative gesture, adapting historical concepts of painting in society and creating a unique vision of the present, that he remains an indelible figure in the history not just of painting but art history at large. Hockney’s work remains fresh even today and makes a strong impact upon the next generation of figurative painters.
Finding Los Angeles and specifically the inhabitants of his local neighbourhood a wellspring of inspiration, Henry Taylor pushes the idea of portraiture in the present day with strong fluid brushstrokes. The subjects of Taylor’s portraits, such as Chocolate Lover, 2006, are people from the neighbourhood who are chosen for a variety of reasons, from who they are in the social spectrum to their personality or style which might be of particular interest to the artist. “This method of painting people who are around - who make up a particular environment, a family, a neighbourhood - is not just integral to Taylor’s project, it is the project” (Laura Hoptman, ‘Henry Taylor’s Portraits’, in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, MoMA PS1, Henry Taylor, 2012, p. 8 ). Rounding out this visual language of urban Los Angeles are paintings of sports and social icons within the African American community. These pictures are often painted from a photograph or memory, mirroring the same process Wood employs in his works. All combined, this ‘project’ creates a strong visual documentation of the world in which the artist lives as well as an identity of the painter personally. Trained in painting at CAL Arts and favouring a looser hand than Jonas Wood, Hockney or Katz, the brushstroke which Taylor employs has a strong tendency to mirror that of Alice Neel and it is this application of paint which has led many to compare the two artists side by side. “Taylor’s oeuvre is an example of what Tamar Garb, in a description of the work of Alice Neel, has called an ‘older idea of portraiture and the traditional protocols of the portrait situation, the sitting the interaction between model and artist’” (Ibid, p. 14). Because Taylor’s portraits are primarily of the people from his immediate neighbourhood, their outside lives are sometimes removed in the image but perhaps referenced in the title of the painting. It is only through the signifiers of the clothes they wear or how the artist chooses to render them that we get any idea of who that person really is. In doing so, Taylor highlights to us the people that create a community who might otherwise be passers-by or another face in the crowd. Like the other artists in this exhibition the paintings are a representation of the subject matter infused with personal feeling and understanding of the subject. If Katz’s figures are familiar and present yet distant by his use of line and tone, then Taylor’s figures, like Alice Neel’s, are more immediate and engaging with the viewer.
Alice Neel’s paintings pulse with the life of the sitter and the emotion of the artist. It is this ability to insert such personality, both of the sitter and herself, that creates an enduring impression on artists, like Henry Taylor and others working today. Archbishop Jean Jadot, 1976, a commissioned work of the Belgian Archbishop, is the documentation of the other aspect of choosing to focus on the world around you, depicting the people and things that are of interest to your patrons, a more classical undertaking, but a reality of being a working artist. Looking inward to art history for answers on how to capture such an important figure as Archbishop Jadot, Neel took influence from Thomas Eakins and his rendering of Archbishop Diomede Falconio, executed in 1905. The portrait, commissioned by the 41st International Eucharistic Congress and paid for by the Philadelphia based Philanthropist Samuel P. Mandell, was in fact an ideal to carry on the legacy of commissions of the clergy paintings by Eakins. In taking on the commission, Neel also entered in the history of painter and patron relationships which can be traced throughout art history. Like the artists in this exhibition it was the undertaking of subject matter and a want to do it in a fitting manner that realised the artist a want to return to a more classical composition and then refit it into her own stylistic and unique manner.
This commissioned undertaking in turn gained the artist further recognition and the ability to continue painting those around Neel and on her own terms. In the balance of subject matter and personal interest the resulting picture is one which has been referred to as “her [Alice Neel] at the strongest level of her mature accomplishment” (Andrew D. Hottle, The Art of the Sister Chapel: Exemplary Women, Visionary Creators, and Feminist Collaboration, Surrey 2014, p. 143). The relationship between the artist and subject had a strong effect on one another. The subject, self-described as ‘difficult’, and the painter, known for her free thought and vocal independence, found a common respect for one another in the week over which the painting was created. While the subject matter and the manner in which the painting was realized could be considered classical from a financial standpoint it is the way in which Neel renders the sitter that pushes the boundaries of portraiture forward and opens a way forward for the next generation of figurative painters to explore their own manner of representation.
From Neel to Katz to Hockney and now to Wood and Taylor, the tradition of painting from life in the present day is an evolving story with certain steadfast tenants. It is the want to stop and capture the immediate world and those in it, which allows the viewer to experience places, people and things in a new manner and perspective. A perspective which is distant from a photojournalist’s reproduction, but as such, is imbued with more feeling. To find a feeling or impulse in a passing shot on TV or to reconsider the familiar is the triumph of these artists. These pictures find the beauty and resonance of the human soul and life within the everyday.