The Absorbent Alex Katz

Alex Katz, Black Scarf (1995), oil on linen, 72″ x 48″; courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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The painter Alex Katz is a curious figure in the annals of postwar American art. Throughout his fifty-year career, he’s been perpetually situated to the side of the art world’s mainstream, yet never so far to the side that he isn’t in the thick of things. A realist who came of age during an era predominated by abstraction—Abstract Expressionism to be exact—Katz has been linked with a number of artistic tendencies, such as Color Field painting, Pop Art, and realism—both “new” and the traditional. He’s found a congenial home in all of them. Yet the closest one can come to placing Katz is to note that he’s a key figure in the generation of painters—it includes Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Nell Blaine, and Leland Bell—that pursued figurative art in the shadow of the New York School.

Even among this group of square pegs, however, Katz sticks out, a fact noted by the critic Sanford Schwartz in 1973. He described Katz’s art as standing “a little elusively by itself” with “allegiances all over the field.” The allegiances Schwartz referred to were stylistic, but the multiplicity of critical allegiances that have formed around Katz’s work is equally “all over the field.” Any artist whose career traverses half a century is bound to have a diversity of devotees, but Katz fans are so wide-ranging in outlook that one can’t help but do a double take. Joining Schwartz in writing appreciatively of Katz’s paintings is Fairfield Porter, who possessed as shrewd an eye as any. Yet the artist can also count among his admirers the indefatigably verbose art critic Donald Kuspit, the controversial historian Simon Schama, the bestselling novelist Ann Beattie, and the contemporary scene’s silky arbiter of cool, Dave Hickey, who once favorably compared Katz’s work to—but of course!—a Hercules movie starring Steve Reeves.

What’s more than a little troubling about Katz’s fans is how their heterogeneity so readily makes room for those with extra-aesthetic axes to grind. Svetlana Alpers, Professor Emerita of the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, counts herself as a Katz devotee —or so one is likely to conclude from the essay she wrote on the occasion of a recent exhibition of his pictures. Yet the only time Alpers writes without her characteristic lukewarmness is when she talks around Katz’s art, particularly when expressing her impatience with those who treasure “art as something distinctive, something which might have its own history.” For Alpers art is nothing of the sort, rather, it is just “one cultural artifact among many others made at a particular time.”

Similarly, Eric de Chassey, in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition “Alex Katz: Small Paintings,” begins his essay by informing us that “Alex Katz is one of very few artists working today capable of creating works that can be reconciled with the world, without seeming anachronistic.” Forgetting for a moment the questions one wants to ask about such a loaded sentence, one intuits that Chassey, like Alpers and Hickey, doesn’t much care for—how to say it?—high art. But they do care for Katz’s art quite a lot. One wonders what a self-described traditionalist like Katz makes of such enthusiasts. One also wonders if the “elusiveness” Schwartz writes of is a loyalist’s way of implying that what makes Katz’s art special is not so much what it is, but rather what it can absorb.

This past fall, Manhattan’s various art districts offered five separate exhibitions devoted to aspects of Katz’s work. If their cumulative effect isn’t an indication of “Katzmania” (for the poker-faced Katz is unlikely to induce mania), it does point to his prominence in the art world. The Whitney is presenting the aforementioned Alex Katz: Small Paintings. It is a two-part exhibition, featuring pictures painted between 1950–1980 at the Whitney’s Philip Morris branch and works created within the last twenty years in the lobby of the uptown museum. Katz’s very latest large-figure paintings and landscapes were on display at PaceWildenstein’s new branch in Chelsea, and the Peter Blum Gallery in Soho mounted a complete survey of Katz’s woodcuts and linocuts. In addition, an impromptu sampling of the artist’s work could be seen during October on West 26th Street in the anteroom of the Robert Miller Gallery. Taken together, these shows in no way made up a comprehensive overview of Katz’s contribution to art (nor were they intended to be so). They did, however, provide an opportunity to get a handle on a body of work whose chief characteristic would seem to be its handlelessness.

Katz earned a significant place in the art history books for his larger-than-life figures in billboard-sized paintings. Whether they depict smartly trimmed cosmopolitans, snow-covered forests, or the family dog, his pictures are what we now think of as “Katzian”: laconic and even-keeled, bland yet unsparing, brusque yet savvy. The works’ expansive scale, disassociated space, awkward stylizations, and uninflected areas of color make Katz not so much a realist as a painter whose take on observed reality is so remote that one could almost consider him an abstract artist. Katz isn’t the first to blur the distinctions between realism and abstraction, but he is the most recognizable—indeed, the most popular—of its practitioners. A large part of his popularity can be attributed to the subjects: family and friends, light conversation, sunny backyards, and a leisure that’s nothing if not ample. The paintings aren’t an argument for the good life, per se, but evidence of one person’s good fortune.

Viewing the large paintings at PaceWildenstein, one easily saw why Katz garners admiration. His recent panoramas of picnics, parties, stylish youths, and landscapes are immaculately composed, resolutely thought through. Their juxtapositions of scale, image, and space strike the viewer with a severe, in-your-face immediacy. They are as tight as a drum. Before too long, however, the viewer finds himself experiencing an is-that-all-there-is? deflation. Katz’s paintings are, in fact, all immediacy. Many painters of my acquaintance have professed respect for Katz’s drive, while lamenting his refusal—or inability—to follow through on a picture. His is an oeuvre that offers the same tinny, sheeny jolt over and over again. That it’s a jolt with a certain wit and élan is undeniable. But it’s a very lean jolt.

Katz’s art is cool and quick. He famously remarked that his goal was a style “emptied of meaning, emptied of content.” This suggests that Katz is pursuing something purely formal, purely concerned with the pictorial means of making a picture. But the problem with the work isn’t that it’s pure or that it’s formal, it’s that it’s disconnected. For Katz, the act of putting brush to canvas is less a passion than a mission—one that should be done very quickly. In an interview a few years back, he admitted as much: he declared that his interest lay in “dealing with the idea of being a … master craftsman.” He even challenged anyone to compete with him “on a craft level—painting a twenty-foot painting, wet on wet for six hours.” This statement is revealing, not just for its casual arrogance, but for its assumption that perspiration is the better part of inspiration, that efficiency is preferable to engagement.

As an addendum to Ada’s Garden (2000), the huge 10 x 20 foot canvas that was the lynchpin of the PaceWildenstein show, the gallery included a series of ten 12 x 16 inch preparatory studies. Each of the small pictures features a single figure—recognizable from Ada’s Garden—set against a brushy ground of black. The inclusion of the studies offered not only a helpful lesson in how an artist plans a painting, but also in how some artists are better off when letting down their hair. While the small pictures are as abbreviated and as quick as we expect from a Katz painting, they’re also a bit more than what we expect a Katz painting to be. An economy of means, in the studies, isn’t a matter of filling in between the lines, but a gambit to be met with and relished. Likewise, their speed is a matter of spontaneity and freedom, not of making a deadline. We feel the bracing mastery of a painter working off the cuff and we take pleasure in the paintings’ sensuality—not only in terms of their brushwork, but also in regard to the appreciation they demonstrate for the human form. Drawing has never been Katz’s strength—his lack of fundamental drawing skills is his most glaring liability—and his signature studies are populated by the stiffest mannequins. In the paintings, however, we get a nuanced sense of the body—of bones and muscle, of the slightest gestures—and of what those gestures may connote. Here Katz’s pictures are enlivened by the terse sociability that the bigger canvases promise but rarely—if ever—deliver.

If the studies aren’t quite revelatory— even at his juiciest Katz is always himself— the satisfactions they offer are real enough. This is what makes the Alex Katz: Small Paintings such an engaging, if mild, pleasure. From the flinty colors and jabbing brush strokes of Trees (1951–52), to the curt dabs and slurs of Yellow Road (1998), the small paintings—again, often studies for larger pieces—are the work of a man of stoic temperament who is nonetheless intensely taken with the world. (They certainly are the work of a man intensely taken with his wife, Ada, whose stern and elegant beauty gives an otherwise undemonstrative art its one recurring nugget of soul.) The small pictures are sparked by unheralded and utterly mundane events: the comedic peak of an infant’s hat, sunlight dappled on an oncoming tide, a cat asleep on a chair, an unruly shock of hair. It’s in these pieces—unkempt, offhand, and inching towards intimacy—that one realizes how much Katz, the grand reconciliator of realism and abstraction, has been oversold —how the big paintings are all things to all people because their emptiness repels nothing. The small paintings, in contrast, forego brand-name stylings for a plainspoken solace taken in transitory moments that are nothing if not homey. Katz’s true role, the one that should be acknowledged in the history books, is that of the most sophisticated of Sunday painters.

© 2001 Mario Naves

Originallly published in the December 2001 edition of The New Criterion.

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