Alex Katz, the New York painter and printmaker, has long been seeking a new kind of non-traditional portraiture: a form that could combine the enlarged scale of mid-20th-century art, Greenbergian picture-plane flatness and the new realism.
It was a tall order, but Katz achieved it in highly simplified, flat, almost billboard-like faces. The often-imitated style has come to be known as the Katz manner, and has been seen here chiefly in the form of the artist's silkscreen prints.
Simultaneously, however, Katz has been working on another new portrait format -- one that combines painting with sculpture. Since 1959 he has been painting full-length figures of friends and acquaintances on sheet aluminum and then cutting them out with a power saw. The resulting nearly life-size free-standing figures are cut off vertically at the sides, and appear as if seen through a picket fence. A group of these Katz cutouts are now getting their first Washington exposure at Middendorf/lane, 2009 Columbia Rd. NW.
At first glance, it seems a captivating idea -- all these figures, painted in Katz's schematized style, standing around sharing the viewer's space. Only the portrait of dancer Paul Taylor leans on an elbow on the floor. The other vertical figures represent Katz's retinue of friends from the New York art world. What fun it would be, one muses, to have a whole cutout family portrait done by Katz, until one sees the price: $16,000 apiece.
Price aside, it is doubtful whether any of these strangers (apart from Taylor) could stand alone as a work of art. A crowd of them -- or at least a provocative setting -- seems essential to the effect. There's scant content in these effigies. And although they are charming as visual one-liners, few would provide interesting company in the long run -- with the possible exception of the gent at the rear in the magenta V-neck sweater.
Given the choice, the riveting silkscreen portrait upstairs called "Orange Band" seems a better bet for long-range pleasure. The show continues thru Dec. 11.
Paris -- after decades of living on its laurels -- is beginning to look alive again, at least for new printmakers. Erik Desmazieres, the son of a French diplomat, is already emerging at 32 as one of the best of the new crop. His show of black-and-white etchings at Gage Gallery, 3019 M St. NW, should not be missed by anyone hunting new talent.
Since his first print in 1972, the prodigiously talented Desmazieres has used soaring, architectural forms -- all inventions of his rich imagination -- as his chief subject matter. His swirling arches, domes, colossea and stairways are filled with enough classic allusions, both in forms and technique, to recall old master prints. Piranesi's architectural fantasies inevitably come to mind; and if Desmazieres has not yet achieved that master's finesse, it seems only a matter of time.
"L'Ecroulement" -- which depicts a domed struture in the process of collapse -- is but one of many images employing dramatic perspective and gravity-defying elements to reinforce a sense of drama and awe. Also included in this survey are works from Atelier Rene Taze where Desmazieres works along with Philippe Mohlitz, 37. His work also appears at Gage (an increasingly good source for high-quality handmade prints), along with notable contributions by George Rubel and Francois Houtin of Paris and Robert Ecker of Denver. This show continues through Dec. 7, but works by these artists are always in stock -- while they last.
The newest dealer in the gallery complex at 406 7th St. NW is Barbara Kornblatt of Baltimore, who is opening her handsome new space with a show of landscape paintings by Roger Laux Nelson of New York. Nelson has a predilection for undulating plowed fields and cloud-swept skies, which he simplifies in his large-format paintings. The simpler the better, as it turns out.
There is no hint of drought in these works, the best of which is an oil study for the 20-foot long mural -- recently commissioned by the GSA for Williamsport, Pa. -- in which bold, painterly strokes define furrowed fields. Elsewhere, color tends to get out of hand, notably in a scene of sugar maples which is just plain garish. "Dry June" and Swathing" suggest that Nelson is on his way to better things. The show continues through Dec. 10.
Upstairs at 406, the Osuna Gallery is also showing landscapes, a group show of generally second- and third- rate paintings by big-name artists from Washington and New York. There are only a few first-rate exceptions: a tiny study Wayne Thibaud and William Beckman's "New York State Landscape," The big surprise here is Manon Cleary's intriguing "Clouds," her first landscape work. Its a breath of fresh air after all those rats.
At McIntosh/Drysdale -- also at 406 7th -- a New Wave show titled "Structure, Narrative, Decoration," brings us the work of six good women artists from AIR, New York's SoHo coop. Mary Beth Edelson evokes a sort of narrative from a sequence of watercolors, photographs, ceramics and beautifully packaged books, while Pat Lasch squeezes paint through a pastry tube to achieve eerie funerary structures as well as tiny decorated cakes. Dottie Addie's series of naughty bits from the old masters, Patsy Norvell's deliciously etched "Glass Garden" and works by Loretta Dunkelman and Elaine Reichek round out this provocative show, which continues through Dec. 11.