Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Art on the Beach: Alex Katz at Tate St Ives

Alex Katz, Black Hat, 2010
I have a confession to make about Tate St Ives, the gallery that ought to be dedicated to the work of the wonderful Cornish art colony, but isn't. Anyone who has been there will know that the delightful building (and its relatively seagull-free cafe balcony) overlooks Porthmeor Beach, and there have been times in the past when I've abandoned the family to the delights of fine art and hired a surfboard for a couple of hours. Not that I would make any claim to being a surfer, but I am just about capable of standing upright on a board long enough to have my picture taken. Last time I avoided an installation involving thousands of balloons and bobbed about in the sea instead. This time, though, the sea was flat, and for once the art promised to be more fun.

It was. I don't know what, if anything, the American painter Alex Katz has to do with St Ives, but over a long career he has made a fascinatingly diverse range of pictures, and a decent selection of those are on show in the main gallery until late September. Among some odd choices - a sketchy painting of a seagull, for one - were some lovely things. For once, I'm quite glad that I walked round the exhibition knowing almost nothing about the artist, as I think he's less interesting once you start trying to put him in context with Warhol and the American Pop Art generation. As it was, I wandered from room to room with kids in tow, not worrying too much about what any of the simply-constructed beach scenes and so on meant.

A billboard-sized painting of women in glamorous swimsuits was striking, but I preferred the picture opposite, '4.30pm', with its deep blue sea and white boats that looked as though they'd been stencilled on last but were, apparently, put on the canvas first. The simple style suited the subject, and didn't seem just to be making a point about Advertising or some such. In the last room, showing the artist's most recent work, it was great to come across one of the strongest pictures in the exhibition, a portrait of a woman wearing a splendid black hat.

William Nicholson, Top: The Hill Above Harlech, 1919 (Tate) Bottom: Nude, 1921 (Tate)

But there was more... Downstairs (in the space so frighteningly filled on a previous occasion with balloons) were pictures from the Tate collection selected by Katz himself. They showed an artist of varied tastes, from Le Douanier Rousseau and Chaim Soutine to the cool and meticulous William Nicholson. The highlight of the day for me was the clever juxtaposition of a beautifully lit Welsh landscape with the most chilled-out of nudes. Looking from one to the other they began to blur, so that the woman's limbs became a kind of landscape. Must find out more about this artist, who was every bit as good as his son Ben, and must have influenced Rav and co with his cool studies.

I was about to leave at this point when I noticed an open doorway with a Tate minion standing in a proprietorial sort of way outside. She let me pass without comment and I found myself in a room of delights, a mini-exhibition devoted to four artists who did have a connection with St Ives. Very much so, in fact. The premise of '1928 - A Cornish Encounter' was the meeting in that year between the up-and-coming young artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, who were staying in Cornwall along with Ben's wife Winifred, and the elderly painter Alfred Wallis. There wasn't much about the meeting itself, but display cases full of letters gave one the opportunity to study everyone's handwriting.

Christopher Wood, Boat in Harbour, Brittany, 1929 (Tate)
More importantly there were paintings on the wall whose creators had a connection to the place in which they were being shown, including a lovely piece by Ben Nicholson of ships viewed through a stylised but still recognisable window, and one of Wood's sumptuous harbour pictures, with a fishing boat that looked good enough to eat. Nice to see Winifred N at least getting a look-in, but I wonder when one of our richer art institutions will give her a proper retrospective.

Winifred Nicholson, Sandpipers, Alnmouth, 1933 (Tate)
Congratulations and thank you to the curator who managed to get '1928 - A Cornish Encounter' on the wall. Next year, can we have the full-sized version in the main gallery, please?


  1. Thanks for this post - I made my first visit to Tate St Ives 10 days ago, so the gallery and the Katz exhibition were totally new to me. Initially I had not thought to go as the flat, rather pop-arty work on the publicity had put me off. The selection of Katz's work fitted the spaces very well, from the smaller, earlier works to the larger, later ones. His personal choice of work was insightful for a non-artist such as me, illustrating the continuities between schools and artists which are not immediately apparent. And I agree, the '1928 - a Cornish Encounter' room was hugely intriguing - I love to see more of the personalities involved, the copious original documents bringing their world to life.
    To round the visit off, the weather had cleared and Porthmeor beach seen from the huge cafe window was a picture in itself, demonstrating the power the place (gallery, sea, coast, St Ives) has to inspire and illuminate.

  2. Thanks Patrick - it seems like you picked the right day to go! I would also thoroughly recommend Kettle's Yard Gallery in Cambridge if you've never been there. One of the best collections of Wood and Winifred Nicholson, among others...