Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, May 4, 2006

ALEX KATZ: The Sixties

Alex Katz Lita 1964, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Lita Hornick. Photo: Digital image (c) The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/ Art Resource, New York. COVER: May 2006. Alex Katz Ives Field 2 1964. oil on linen, 74 x 120-1/2 inches. all images Courtesy PaceWildenstein

Andy Warhol had his “famous for fifteen minutes” theory.  Alex Katz, more generously, talks about an artist’s “three year bounce.”

Picasso, for instance, had his from 1910-13, then Gris and Léger made him look old-fashioned.  Matisse was a lucky exception to this harsh law of hipness: besides his fauve moment, he had a “second bounce” with his late cutouts.

Mr. Katz had no doubt when his three years happened—the turn of the sixties.  He’s not suggesting for a moment that the quality of his work—or Picasso’s—fell off, or even reached a new height: it is simply about how an artist’s internal devolopment suddenly synchronizes with collective artworld needs and expectations.

PaceWildenstein are presenting a museum quality (and sized) exhibition of his works from the sixties that includes museum loans for MoMA; the Weatherspoon, NC; Colby College, ME and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum. 

Often monumentally scaled landscapes, portraits, and ambitiously complex group portraits reveal traits that have become Katz trademarks: Glamorous in initial impact, coolly impersonal in touch, his paintings are an exhilerating mix of the ingeniously streamlined and the intriguingly nuanced.  “Lita” (1964), the MoMA loan, is true to form.  At roughly five foot square, the  portait features a stylish woman, her big blond bob revealing a high forehead, a four-layered pearl necklace offsetting pale skin, a lowcut cocktail dress following a serpentine trail around the bosom to echo the flow of the hair. 

Volumetric areas of the face are blocked out almost schematically, like the contours on a weather map, in a way that perversely flattens the features at the very moment it defines the planes.  This weird mix of flatness and convincing presence—glamor and humanity—is what gave the new Katz portrait its singularity, its 1960s feel.

Alex Katz Rockaway 1961
oil on canvas, 83-1/2 x 71-3/4 inches
The Paul J. Schupf Wing, Colby College Museum of Art. Gift of the Artist.

Mr. Katz, who was born in Brooklyn in 1927 and graduated from the Cooper Union in 1949, was already producing highly individual, mature works by the mid-1950s, but he was a relatively marginal figure amidst the triumphs of Abstract Expressionism and its offshoots.  His first successful idiom was the small collage in cut paper.  Often around four by six inches, the seeming daintiness of these at once ingenious and ingenuous creations was deceptive.  He was teaching himself invaluable lessons about scale.  Frank O’Hara noted of these early works how “the size is intimate but the scale is vast.”  But in their delicate, “feminine” colors and diminutive size they were also a deliberate riposte to the machismo of New York School abstraction.  As he later told the artist Richard Prince, “I wanted to kick the machos on their asses.”

Scale was clearly the key issue in Mr. Katz’s self-conscious breakthrough.  He abandoned collage in 1960 to pursue big portraits, but clearly the collage experience was crucial to his discovery of the autonomous figure against a beligerently monochrome ground. “Rockaway” (1961) places three figures, a redhead in a floral dress and two servicemen (a marine and a sailor against a neutral ground that’s almost graphite gray, delivered in an agitated, animated hand that follows to some extent the contours of the bodies.  Later, in works like “Lita,” the ground would resolve into high chroma and deft flatness.

In a way, the neutral ground is an oldmasterly, even academic solution to emphasize the figure or face in portraiture, but in 1960 it inevitably read as a bravura collision of seemingly incompatible streams in American art: color field abstraction, with its flatness and monochrome, and realism, with its insistence on the socialized, human subject.  Mr. Katz also prefigured Pop Art in his acute observation of current fashions.

Soon after the initial impact of this new format he realised that it could degenerate into mannerism.  As he told the painter David Salle in an interview, quoted in the book by Barry Schwabsky that accompanies this exhibition: “When I got to the flat background, that was the most exciting thing in my life—it was a bingo!  It was the first time the paintings had real energy to them.  But I realized very quickly that if I kept using flat backgrounds I would be in a box.”  His solutions were twofold, and each as radical in their way as the initial breakthrough. 

One was to re-integrate his figures with environments, and yet retain the shocking sense of displacement. “Ives Field 2” (1964) pushes a tension of naturalism and artifice to an extreme here that is always to some extent alive in his work. The finely chiselled features of the sitters, who include fellow artists Yvonne Jacquette and Red Grooms, dominate the field of vision almost like Mount Rushmore presidents, and yet the vista glimpsed around them, with ballplayers in the middle ground and hills on the distant horizon, is credible and vast.

Another solution to freeing the figure from the artifice of its ground only to accentuate its own, inherent artifice came in the form of cutout.  He discovered this idiom, one of his most brilliant inventions, by accident, when he wanted to keep a successful figure in an otherwise failed canvas.  He found instead that it worked better pasted to a wooden support cut to the same shape.  Actual, physical space came to replace the monochrome painted ground as the ideal neutrality in which to isolate the figure. 

This show includes his cutout masterpiece: “One Flight Up” (1968).  It shows a party in full swing, with a cast of around three dozen people, the artist’s social set, in various modes: drinking, chatting, listening, striking a pose.  Originally mounted on a pingpong table, the artist more recently reset the cutout busts on prods afixed to a chesthigh aluminum table.  In these portraits he plays innumerable painterly and sculptural games.  It can be enjoyed “in the round” and yet it is insistently flat—the optimum views are straight-on from either long side.  There are discrepancies of scale, emphasising a sense of a dense throng even though the table is actually less than four feet (and three or four planes) deep.  Most panels show a single figure, painted front and back.  A few couples cohabit a single shape.

There is a giddying array of painterly approaches within the relatively compressed timespan of this exhibition.  The earlier works reveal Mr. Katz’s 1950s handling, expressively gestural as befits a time of AbEx supremacy, for all that he was seeking distance from it.  Oxymoron that it sounds, there is a succulent scrawliness to his thinned-out brushiness in, for instance, the pair of double portraits, “Don and Marisol I and II” (1960) that also recalls Milton Avery, an early influence.  By the time of “Lita” there is the insistently flat, deadpan paint handling of the 1960s.  While the latest painting in the show, “Swamp Maple 4:30” (1968) has a typically 1970s finesse in the exactitude of each leaf, the specificness of the foreground lawn. 

This sense of different surface treatments makes one appreciate the liveliness and sense of progress in Mr. Katz’s subsequent career.  Many of the features of his aesthetic are present already in the 1960s, but you know that, in sheer painterly terms, there is better to come. These paintings look as good as anything painted by anyone else in the 1960s.  But they don’t look as good as the Alex Katzes painted today. 



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