Alex Katz

West 1


Not on display

Alex Katz born 1927
Oil paint on canvas
Object: 2445 × 4885 × 64 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Presented by the artist and acquired with assistance of the ARTIST ROOMS Fund, supported by the Henry Moore Foundation and Tate Members 2017


West 1 1998 is a large-scale oil painting on linen. Rectangular and landscape in format, it depicts a night-time view of an urban environment where the windows of a city building or block of flats – lit from within by electric light – are illuminated against a dark, black evening sky. Painted with a monochromatic palette, the backlit windows are depicted with single brushstrokes of white paint and the composition is unified by the dense black background.

Whilst Katz is best known for his highly stylised portraits of family members and friends (see, for example, Hiroshi and Marcia 1981 [Tate T03805]), landscape has remained a central theme in his work since the 1950s. His paintings explore both the rural beauty of the American town of Lincolnville and the wider Maine coastline, where Katz has spent his summers since 1954, and the harder-edged modernist architecture of New York, where he has lived in an artists’ cooperative building in SoHo since 1968. Following a large body of work exploring the various qualities of daylight in these locations, Katz produced his first night-time paintings in 1986, fascinated by the radically different experience of light the darkness offered. He has said: ‘There are so many kinds of daylight and nightlight. I thought they should get equal attention.’ (Quoted in Museum der Moderne Mönchsberg 2013, p.18.) He has since painted night-time light in different settings; both the artificial lights of the urban environment and the natural light of the moon reflected on surfaces such as water.

Many of Katz’s urban night scenes – such as Night Branch 1994 (ARTIST ROOMS AR00009) and City Night 1998 (ARTIST ROOMS AR00012) – juxtapose the artificially lit windows of apartment buildings, such as the one in which he lives, with tree branches. West 1, however, is starker and more minimalist in aesthetic and, as a result, less easily identifiable as a depiction of any particular location. Rather than focusing on the way in which light gives character to an environment in a broader sense, this painting makes electric light – as emitted by a cluster of urban windows in the corner of a residential block – its primary subject matter. It dramatises the experience of city lights at night from a position of darkness and is defined by the time of day at which it was painted; the subject matter emerges, quite literally, from the darkness that fills the canvas. Speaking about the pivotal role of light within his work, Katz has said: ‘Light is the initial flash of what you see; that’s what I’m after.’ (Quoted in Serpentine Gallery 2016, p.14.)

West 1 is painted on a monumental scale, placing the viewer in a voyeuristic outsider position from which they are enveloped by the surrounding darkness of the canvas. Katz’s composition focuses on the light source behind each of the backlit windows, conveyed with a single brushstroke of white paint to represent each aperture. Despite such a restricted palette and economy of means, the application of paint is highly evocative; a fact demonstrated by the single unfinished window frame in the centre of the composition on the left-hand side of the painting which reveals the artist’s technique. Applied in layers wet on wet, the white oil paint – when dragged by Katz through the still tacky dark ground underneath – mixes to form streaks of grey, and becomes textured in a way that evokes the spatial depth of the interior of each room beyond the window. Further detail is added to the window frames in the form of overpainted vertical and horizontal black lines which indicate the grilles that divide the separate panes of glass, and small white marks within the boundaries of each that evoke the glares and reflections cast by bright artificial light.

West 1 was included in Katz’s solo exhibition, Alex Katz: Quick Light, at the Serpentine Gallery in London (2 June–11 September 2016).

Further reading
Alex Katz. New York / Maine, exhibition catalogue, Museum der Moderne Mönchsberg, Salzburg, 9 March–7 July 2013.
Alex Katz: Quick Light, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2 June–11 September 2016, illustrated pp.76–7.

Hannah Johnston
September 2016

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