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News: High Museum acquires Alex Katz paintings, Anish Kapoor sculpture

The High Museum of Art is rolling out some major acquisitions, and some of them are already in the Skyway of the Wieland Pavilion.

The museum’s two new works by Alex Katz, “Winter Landscape 2” (2007, pictured below) and “Twilight” (1998), are installed in a gallery with two other canvases from the artist’s “Four Seasons” series. The museum has also acquired an untitled 2009 sculpture by Anish Kapoor. The faceted concave disk will be installed in July in the gallery facing the elevators with “Pot for Her” (1985), a striking work coated in blue powder, from the High’s Lenore and Burton Gold Collection.

Michael Rooks, the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art, who engineered the acquisitions, says that these artists were on the wish list he made before he arrived at the museum in January 2010. That the peerless Kapoor was a priority is no surprise. Katz, though eminent, stands a bit in the shadows. Devoting one of only four major galleries to his work, and acquiring monumental landscapes by an artist best known for portraits, might seem curious decisions.

Rooks explains: “Alex is an incredibly important painter. He conflated the painterliness of Abstract Expressionism with the flatness of Pop. I’ve always loved his work. He’s under-recognized, but artists are looking at him now, and I always take my first cue from artists.”

The “under-recognized” part is actually catnip to Rooks, who prefers revelation to obvious choices. (The late Al Taylor, admired by Robert Rauschenberg and others of the Leo Castelli stable but otherwise a virtual unknown, is one of Rooks’ favorite artists. A suite of his prints is on view in the rear gallery.)

“Although he’s known for his portraits, landscape has been a long-term subject, and the landscapes seem really personal,” Rooks says of Katz. “I see them as an extension of American tradition from the Hudson River Valley School to the Northeastern landscapes of Fairfield Porter. The landscapes are about light and color — everything that painting is about for me.”

The paintings argue for their place in an even longer continuum. Moving backward, Katz’s “perceptual realism,” to use art historian Irving Sandler’s term, is rooted in Monet’s serial paintings and Giverny water lilies. Moving forward, the optical tricks with positive and negative space in “Twilight” — a worm’s-eye glimpse of deep turquoise of darkening sky through the pitch- black silhouettes of a dense canopy of trees — suggest figuration teetering on the brink of abstraction. Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings in the adjacent gallery represent the logical next step.

The Katz installation activates dialogue with the selections of Pop art installed nearby, and the pieces in the west gallery. I had always viewed the latter as a series of individual works. Seen in relation to the Katz paintings, they become a panel discussion of contemporary variants of  the landscape genre: as mythic metaphor in Anselm Kiefer’s “Dragon”; as implied narrative in Jeff Wall’s photograph of a decidedly unpastoral urban park at night; as a vehicle for cultural commentary in Matthew Day Jackson’s “June 6, 1969” (left), a monumental mixed-media version of a Life magazine cover featuring a photographic close-up of a moonscape, which symbolizes America’s love affair with frontiers and technology.

The Jackson painting is one of a number of other new acquisitions on view in the Skyway, including prints by Terry Winters, Kiki Smith and Sam Francis. “Auguries,” a stunning 12-panel etching by Julie Mehretu (below), exemplifies the High’s effort to build its collection of works by African-American artists. In addition to Driskell Prize winners Xaviera Simmons and Renee Stout, the museum has acquired, for example, a 10-foot-tall tire sculpture by Chakaia Booker.

Rooks is also adding works, mostly drawings, by Georgia artists, such as Benjamin Jones, Joe Almyda, Joe Perrin, Alejandro Aguilera, Don Cooper, Brian Dettmer, Jiha Moon, Radcliffe Bailey and Cosmo Whyte.

Rooks, who has pursued acquisitions with welcome vigor, has described his strategy as collecting constellations of works as opposed to building a chronological narrative. “Contemporary art is a moving target,” he says, “and the museum moves slowly. Besides, is a narrative even possible?”

He has a point, especially considering the daunting variety and proliferation of contemporary art, budget and space limitations. And it may be, as he contends, that groupings, an approach the High has already taken with the Gerhard Richter and Kelly galleries, are “a generous way of letting the audience into an artist’s work.”

But the Richter and Kelly galleries have been up since the opening of the Wieland Pavilion in 2005. Now, with the Katz installation, the lion’s share of the museum’s prime real estate for contemporary art will be devoted to just three artists. That is not a way to encourage return viewers or, for that matter, to win over newbies, who would understand the art better if it were presented in context, whether it’s a full-blown narrative or not.

Maybe it’s whiny to be complaining when exhibitions of contemporary art dominate the current schedule. The High’s growing collection of contemporary design occupies a floor in the Anne Cox Chambers Wing, and exhibitions by Atlanta artists Chip Simone and Radcliffe Bailey will open soon. But word has it that the museum will be reconsidering the disposition of the permanent collection soon, so questions about its philosophy of collecting and display are worth bringing up. Besides, I want to see more of the acquisitions that are squirreled away.

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