None of the Alex Katz paintings that command the entire second floor of the High Museum of Art’s Wieland Pavilion in an exhibition opening Sunday are as monumental as the 43-foot-high-by-30-foot-wide banner that hawks the New York artist’s show from the museum’s Peachtree Street facade.
But a few are remarkably close.
The tallest inside is 12 feet. The widest spans 28.5 feet.
More than a dozen of the landscapes in “Alex Katz, This Is Now” are so large that they had to be taken off their stretchers in New York and rolled before being transported to Atlanta, where the High then had them restretched. Special art transport trucks couldn’t handle them, but the ample walls of the Wieland’s flowing galleries can.
But beyond the near-billboard proportions of roughly a quarter of the 60 paintings, the show is big in terms of importance, too.
Now 87 and still hugely prolific, Katz looms large in the canon of post-World War II American art. But he’s mainly recognized for his iconic, large-scale portraits from the 1960s and ’70s, executed in his signature flat planes of color and lean lines.
If you Google his name, portrait after portrait pops up. But the browser isn’t the only one confused: Many art world cognoscente are equally fixated on Katz’s compelling output from a half-century ago.
“Alex Katz, This Is Now,” one of the largest exhibitions ever focused on the artist’s landscapes, aims to change that.
Including works from the beginning of the Brooklyn-born artist’s epic career in 1954 to 2013, the exhibit intends to show how the landscape became an early passion for him at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine and how he’s often returned to it, especially over the past two decades.
“I’d like for people to come away understanding that Alex is such a vital artist today,” High curator of modern and contemporary art Michael Rooks said, “that he’s this incredibly important and urgent painter. And that the landscape was really kind of a departure for him to grow in his duty to evolve as an artist. He’s still learning and still evolving and experimenting.”
The exhibit includes 1950s collages in which Katz used the environment as a setting for the human figure, ’60s and ’70s portraiture in which landscape served as an enveloping environment for Katz’s cool figures, and paintings of this century where the figures have disappeared and landscape has moved to the foreground as the subject.
Katz calls these later works “environmental paintings,” and has worked larger and larger to encourage the idea of them as an immersive experience for the viewer.
“The viewer steps into the role of the figure depicted in Katz’s earlier work,” Rooks writes in the exhibit wall text, “and becomes enveloped by their vast expanses.”
In some of the most recent paintings of his beloved Maine, where he and his wife and muse Ada summer, those expanses have become subject to increasing abstraction. For instance, some of the monumental renderings of a tiny brook on his property look more Rorschach test than tributary.
The abridging of Katz’s imagery has made his work more open and available, Rooks believes, and brought the painter’s emotions more to the surface.
Atlantans can interpret for themselves through Sept. 6, and then the High-organized show travels to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. One other European tour stop is expected to be added for the work of this enduring American artist.
View a photo gallery of Alex Katz and his High Museum exhibit here.
“Alex Katz, This Is Now”
Opens June 21. Through Sept 6. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $19.50; $16.50, students and ages 65 and up; $12, ages 6-17; free, ages 5 and younger. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.