Review: Artist Rooms: Alex Katz, at Tate Liverpool

Alex Katz at Tate Liverpool

Artist Rooms was part of Nicholas Serota’s outgoing legacy at Tate. When the long serving Director of the national gallery group stepped down in 2018 he had described the foundation of the programmes as “without precedent anywhere in the world.”

The touring collection features work from Joseph Beuys, Jeff Koons, Louise Borgeois – just three of 38 internationally famous artists on the list. Its establishment was intended as a touring exhibition series that galleries all over the UK could host, and for the most part has seen recognised artists on repetitive journeys around the UK.

The latest show at Tate Liverpool from the collection is of Alex Katz, an artist whose name is less known than his work, which by most outside the world of art dealerships is still not particularly familiar.

Rather than hinder the exhibition it actually helps, and probably does more for the vision of the scheme’s creators than Koons or Lichtenstein possibly could.

Witnessing work that wouldn’t otherwise have been known in Liverpool is really important, not just showing work by big name artists because it’s available in the collection, but using the Tate platform to educate and introduce new work and new ideas to audiences that don’t, or can’t get to London to witness an incredibly selective art world.

I was struck by a very clear sense of place with Katz’s larger works, but it is his smaller pieces that get the most regular praise. The artist is probably best explained through his connection to pop art. He wasn’t part of the movement, but very likely influenced it.

His history as an artist is so steeped in the art world itself that the social structures of pop art couldn’t possibly have avoided his influence. Most of his work, particularly the smaller works, while most obviously representing this transition from figurative work to the bold and representative colours of pop art, is also probably his least inspiring. It’s his larger work that makes this part of the Artist Rooms collection worth seeing.

You can get entirely lost in the overwhelming darkness of the two most confidently placed paintings, as the shadows build with time spent. The colour here, or lack of has all of the confidence and selflessness of pop art, but with a very personal and delicate representation of fear and pressure.

Sitting with the work for a while is probably necessary (whether this is your first encounter with Alex Katz or not, but definitely if you’ve not see his work before) to understand the power of the work. During my time in the gallery I observed something quite special; nobody ever seemed satisfied with one single perspective. In front of every painting, people shifted, in all directions, always with their eyes fixed to the paintings.

I couldn’t work out if the rest of the visitors liked the work, or loathed it, but none of them dismissed it, and that is precisely what Artist Rooms should be doing, because nobody needs to discover Warhol, and everybody knows what to expect from Jeff Koons, but there are artists in this touring collection that we have never heard of, and who I’d like to know more about.

Artist Rooms: Alex Katz is at Tate Liverpool until 17 March
Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith