Somewhere you probably have a snapshot of some of your closest friends and family members on the beach. It might be a 4 x 6 inch print or maybe it’s just saved on your cell phone. Could you imagine such a casual image as a life-size painting? Eric Fischl can and does. His 8 x 10 foot painting St. Barts Ralph’s 70th (2009), currently on loan from the artist, both challenges and channels the spontaneity of the ordinary snapshot with its dynamic brushwork and through the inclusion of celebrity friends, such as actors Steve Martin and Martin Short in the center of a scene set on the Caribbean island of St. Barts. In perhaps another nod to the links between painting and photography, Fischl’s painting marks the birthday of his friend, the photographer Ralph Gibson, who happens to be represented in the museum’s collection.
I then discovered that Round Hill (1977), a 6 x 8 foot painting by Alex Katz promised to LACMA, is also set on a Caribbean beach (Nevis). The opportunity to display these monumental paintings at LACMA for the first time and to pull out connections and themes, including beaches and the figure in painting and photography, led me to curate to Alex Katz, Eric Fischl and the Beach Scene, now on view in the American art galleries.
Alex Katz, Round Hill, 1977, partial and promised gift of Barry and Julie Smooke, © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
I couldn’t resist the beach theme and also found several relevant photographs in the collection that resonate with the divergent character of Katz’s and Fischl’s modern-day conversation pieces set seaside. In contrast to Fischl’s fluid painterly execution and the cheerful camaraderie represented, Katz’s forms are more hard-edged, nearly abstracted; the flattened space in works like Round Hill deliberately accentuate painting’s two-dimensionality and can evoke the graphic quality of black-and-white photographs. The curious lack of interaction between the figures in Katz’s composition resonates for me with the work of Anthony Friedkin and Larry Fink, whose photographs present edgier takes on the sandy subject. Ultimately, I also decided to include David Salle’s new lithograph Vista (2010), commissioned for LACMA , to underscore the pop sensibility and timeless quality that permeates beach imagery in American art.