Ideas about Painting

Alex Katz’s “delicate craquelure”

In my little attic workroom, progress continues on a series of small paintings I started this past summer in Beacon, NY. While squeezing the ivory black onto my palette this morning, I kept thinking about “Swamp Maple,” a 1968 painting by Alex Katz (image above) that I saw at the National Gallery last week. Everywhere Katz used black or a black mixture, the paint has cracked. At first it looks like he did it on purpose to mimic the texture of tree bark, but on closer inspection the cracking, which appears throughout the picture, is clearly unintentional.

Here’s what the NGA web page says about the recently (2008) acquired painting. “Katz beautifully captures the glow of weak sun on leaf and water and the contrasting textures of soft grass and rough bark. A delicate craquelure on the tree trunk emerged during the course of painting, and Katz took advantage of it to convey the bark itself. His color choices, such as the tan sky and the white reflection of the black shore, are both memorable and puzzling, leaving the viewer to wonder whether it is 4:30 a.m. or p.m. The former is not out of the question: Katz has said that he wants to explore times that few people have seen, and in Lincolnville, the sun rises that early in the summer. In fact, Katz recalls that the painting was based on oil sketches he made in the afternoon, although the title leaves the time of day ambiguous.”

I got out my well worn copy of The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer and looked up “black.” Sure enough, full strength oil colors with high absorption, especially lamp and ivory black, should never be overpainted with pigments of lower oil content. If layering is necessary, Mars black is a better choice. Blacks are notorious for causing unwanted cracking as the paint dries, even when thinly applied. Most painters won’t be lucky enough to have a team of NGA restoration experts holding their paintings together, so if they want the paintings to last, they should make sure not to put thin over thick.

Other pieces on view in the East Building, Concourse Gallery Lobby with the Katz painting included:
Robert Gober “The Slanted Sink,” 1985, plaster, wood, steel, wire lath, and semi-gloss enamel paint, 2006.37.1
On Kawara “Title,” 1965, acrylic on three separate canvases, 2006.40.1.1
Robert Morris “Untitled,” 1967/1986, steel and steel mesh, 2005.142.28
Barnett Newman “Achilles,” 1952, oil and acrylic resin on canvas, 1988.57.5
Tony Smith “Die,” model 1962, fabricated 1968, steel with oiled finish, 2003.77.1


  1. I have been thinking a lot about this lately. It seems attention to archival details is pass� especially NOW. Everywhere I turn, the use of spray paint and all kinds of gunk is all the rage. What are these pieces going to look like in ten or more years? I guess if you don’t care, the sky is the limit. However, it will be a shame to see some of this work just fall apart before our eyes.
    Time can be cruel.

  2. “Fat over Lean” used to be an inviolable rule. Now it’s oil over acrylic.

  3. Interesting commentary about black pigments. In an act of pure laziness I’m compelled to ask you if Mayer mentioned why black is so prone to cracking, instead of dusting off the book and looking it up myself.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *