Alex Katz
Alex Katz   Untitled 2013   oil on board    16 X 12 inches

Figure and Ground

The idea of Figure and Ground is an old, though not necessarily ancient, preoccupation. Figure calls to mind not only the human figure but also a motif, decorative element, or subject. Ground is the depth of field of an image, but also the basis of our walking and thinking. The artists in this exhibition have in various degrees reacted to the history of abstract expressionism and its radical reinvention of the idea of figure and ground. In different ways, these five artists are involved with the physical nature of the body and the experience of light and air in outdoor and indoor environments.

Alex Katz has presented whole and fragmentary figures in his work, sometimes against recognizable grounds, sometimes against undefined fields of color. He has striven for accurate sensations of fleeting glimpses of recognizable features in a unifying light. In his aquatint Woods, flickering light on leaves becomes the main subject, and the murky figure of a tree trunk is submerged in the shifting space of the branches. Compared to portraits and landscapes, Katz has painted relatively few nudes. However, as someone interested in the kinesthetic abilities of athletes and dancers, it is no surprise he has often chosen to depict dancers in his work. In the studies in this exhibition, Katz is able, in a few quick brushstrokes, to reveal the musculature and motions of a nude dancer or the light on outdoor scenes.

Jan Henle has also been intimately involved with modern dance and has collaborated with the dance duo Eiko and Koma, who usually perform in elemental settings, moving in ways so controlled and subtle they seem to mimic planetary or evolutionary rhythms. In addition to his film drawings depicting this kind of performance, Henle has captured Eiko and Koma in whimsical improvisations in more mundane environments. Whimsy can enter the work of Swiss-born photographer Rudy Burckhardt too in his still-lifes, photo montages, films, and occasionally in his nudes. Burkhardt's nudes are not stage-lit; they are set in normal situations, using available light. He often adds a touch of Swiss humor by introducing an unexpected prop. Henle's nude, Fertility Figure IV, puts the body to an entirely different use aesthetically. Here, the woman's body seems to be attempting to push through the frame, giving the figure a startlingly sensual proximity to the viewer.

In Juan Eduardo Gómez' case, the body itself becomes a landscape — legs become rivers, faces become quarries — and abstraction is a tool that paradoxically fixes the particular nature of the person. Sometimes, his figures lounge against grounds that lack specific detail. Other times, he is able to blend figure and landscape. He animates the classic motif of a reclining female form by updating its accessories and attitudes.

In her Magnolia series, Vivien Bittencourt makes a correlation between the extravagant blossoms of the tree and the fluctuating body of her son. In this case, there is no evidence of human history; there is simply the human form suspended in nature. In other photographs, she substitutes particular species of trees or ancient ruins for human figures. Her sense of landscape is usually as one lived in for centuries by human beings, who may or may not be visible. This can be evinced, as in her photograph Winter, taken in a grove of pines in the Villa Doria Pamphili in Rome, simply by engraved rows of plantings and the shadows they make in particular seasons and times of day.

At certain moments in these works, the ground itself becomes the focus. When he comes to make film drawings of his land sculptures of exposed earth, Jan Henle shows no horizon lines. Though apparently nothing is in motion, the resultant images engender a giddy instability in the viewer's awareness. This paradoxical feeling of calm in the midst of movement brings to mind the street images of Rudy Burckhardt, who relies on momentary encounters in his photographs of people briskly walking. In Burckhardt's crowd scenes, clothed fragments of legs and arms on New York's streets vie for the viewer's attention. Trying to identify who and where they come from, and then realizing that, though our city vision is fragmentary, it is still part of an essential whole, are civilized, urbane pleasures.
— Vincent Katz

Artist Bios
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Katz is the author of Invented Symbols: An Art Autobiography. Current exhibitions include “Alex Katz: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art” at the Nassau County Museum of Art and “Alex Katz: Beneath the Surface” at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

Jan Henle grew up in St. Croix and now works in Puerto Rico. His film drawings are in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. His collaborative film with Vivien Bittencourt, Con El Mismo Amor, was shown at the Gwang Ju Biennale in 2008 and is currently in the ikono On Air Festival.

Juan Eduardo Gómez is an American painter born in Colombia in 1970. He came to New York to study art and graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 1998. His paintings are in the collections of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick. He was awarded The Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2007.

Rudy Burckhardt was born in Basel in 1914 and moved to New York in 1935. From then on he was at or near the center of New York’s intellectual life, counting among his collaborators Edwin Denby, Paul Bowles, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Alex Katz, Red Grooms, Mimi Gross, and many others. His work has been the subject of exhibitions at the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, the Museum of the City of New York, and, in 2013, at Museum der Moderne Salzburg.

Vivien Bittencourt grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, and moved to New York City in 1986. She has made photographic portraits of poets, musicians, and artists, in addition to her photographs of trees and archeological sites. She has made several short documentaries on artists, including Rudy Burckhardt, Red Grooms, Alex Katz, and Kiki Smith. Her work is in the collection of the Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville.

“Figure and Ground” was curated by Vincent Katz and Vivien Bittencourt.

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