Thursday, October 9th, 2003

Alex Katz at PaceWildenstein and Peter Blum

“Alex Katz: Flowers & Landscapes”
PaceWildenstein until November 8 (32 E 57th Street, at Madison Avenue, 212 421 3292).

“Alex Katz: Cartoon”
Peter Blum until November 15 (99 Wooster Street, between Prince and Spring Streets, 212 343 0441).

Alex Katz Woods in Twilight 2002 oil on canvas, 10.5 x 8 inches Courtesy PaceWildenstein
Alex Katz, Woods in Twilight 2002 oil on canvas, 10.5 x 8 inches Courtesy PaceWildenstein

It’s hard to know what the early Twenty First Century has done to deserve so good a painter as Alex Katz. The kind of paint wizardry shot through with compelling aesthetic purpose that his art represents seems to belong to an altogether different era. Actually, he seems outside of any given zeitgeist, for he combines the insouicance of a primitive with the style jinks of a decadent. But then, a juggling of opposites is the essence of his mercurial paint personality.

On the one hand, there is a high octane bravura technique going on, with big machines completed in tour de force wet in wet painting sessions. (If you know something about painting, the sensation of contained speed captured in these habitually ten or twelve foot long canvases is bewildering; if you don’t, the images are still compellingly complete and self-contained.) At the same time, his svelt surfaces seem to breeze by with nonchalent finesse. He is an artist with a fully rounded, personal vision, and yet his style is insistently cool, classical, impersonal. You can tell an Alex Katz from a mile away, and yet there’s diversity within his oeuvre, a willingness to take risks, to push acceptance levels.

His latest show of paintings, at PaceWildenstein’s uptown space, explores his preoccupations with landscape, and in particular, with flowers. Landscape goes back to the outset of his career, in the 1950s, and he has painted flowers since at least the 1960s, but still, exhibiting in just these genres shows some indifference to public expectation, for Mr. Katz’s most memorable images remain his iconic, diffident, billboardish yet humane portraits. Those missing the human dimension in Mr. Katz can enjoy a rare exhibition of his working “cartoons” at Peter Blum in SoHo, most of which are of figurative subjects.


The speed and economy of a Katz painting belies its painterliness. In a way, he has always been the victim of how well his works look in reproduction. Because they are great images – despite being wilfully cropped and decentered, they are well-composed – we think we are getting the full deal with a photograph. But to be with these paintings is to realize how much of their staying power derives from his investment in brushstroke and his pleasure in the residual qualities of paint. This comes across in a painting like “Yarrow,” 2002, with the flowers and grass disposed on a marigold yellow ground: the actual hairs of the brush aid and abett a choreography orchestrated by the breeze.

However much Mr. Katz has his trademark devices and systems, there are no safe bets in his art: he seems contantly engaged in high wagers. He is happy to court absurdity, as in his almost anthropomorphic portraits of roses against a railing. And technically, he plays off the literal and undisguised fact of paint on a flat surface and the depiction of deep space. “Grey and Green,” 2001, for instance, is almost a catfight between flatness and depth, as exuberant, succuluent, squigy brushstrokes suggest the leaves dancing in front of our vision looking upwards into tall trees against the sky.

We like to believe that the best abstract painting somehow distills all the insights of depictive art from centuries past. This requires a leap of faith. The beauty of Katz, it seems to me, is that his realist painting really and demonstrably does capture the essence of abstraction. This relates back to his inbetweenness, perhaps, his working perceptually in the tradition of the New York School, somehow bringing together the energy of Pollock and the mystery of Hopper. Of course, a partisan of abstraction would insist this is a somewhat philistine assertion: what you lose when you put back representation into abstraction is the lessness, the reduction, achieved by abstraction. But Mr. Katz somehow catches a whiff of that. He embodies reduction {I} within representation.

This point is well understood in relation to “Woods in Twilight,” 2002. We get three silver birch trunks, probably in Maine, against a strident green ground, drastically cropped to their torsos (no roots or branches), with a restrained array of leaves and falling twigs. However pared down and implied these forms are, however, they are not signs for “tree,” “leaf,” “twig,” so much as symbols- living, breathing, contingent. The leaves have a seriality about them, like notes on a stave, yet they also have a strange and compelling individuality, achieved it seems through multiple and varied slights of the wrist. This gives the image the strange status of being at once written in the artist’s hand and anti-personal in that touch is detypified. The ground also has this at once generic and specific quality: it’s a near monochrome, but there is just enough variance in tone at the sides to imply space, with a sense of atmosphere and recession. Above all, it’s light that makes the scene perceptually credible: the different shades of sharp and soft green for the leaves catching or repelling light, and the horizontal strokes of white against the smooth verticality of the tree trunks. Like garments, the patches of shiny bark belong with the body and yet retain their autonomy.


Alex Katz Alex and Ada cartoon, details to follow
Alex Katz, Alex and Ada cartoon, details to follow

Early in his career, Mr. Katz came up with a phrase to describe his painterly ambitions: “Something hot done in a cool way.” This collision of temperature metaphors identifies him with his generation: Jazz, particularly the clean, technically precision and sauve gaiety of bebop, was an early touchstone of his endeavor. Although his cultural interests moved on to the dance and poetry, jazz remains the best analogy to the fusion of improvisation and control in his painting.

His highly evolved, elaborate modus operandi finely balances perception and artifice, the sketch and the design. He will start with plein air oil sketches, in the case of landscapes, or drawings executed from life, in the case of portraits. These will be worked up in scale, and like a renaissance master, as the works get seriously big, he will create a cartoon.

The use of this term in relation to Katz adds an unintended frisson of Pop culture, as this is an artist, after all, who was once compared to a cross between Giotto and Krazy Kat. A drawing is made on cheap brown wrapping paper and then perforated with pin pricks, through which dust or charcoal is “pounced” onto the canvas, thus fixing the composition in outline. The paints will then be mixed ahead of the single session marathon of the final execution.

Films of Mr. Katz at work show him nonchalently trashing the cartoon once the painting is finished. Some have nonetheless been preserved, and Peter Blum, who has published several print editions by Mr. Katz, has had the idea of staging an exhibition of fifteen of them, pinned, unframed, to his SoHo walls.

These drawings have a ghostly, otherworldly feel to them. It is as if one is seeing X-rays of images one knows so well, only washed of color and painterliness. They also lack the finesse of his familiar drawing technique and the transparency of his prints. But they are extraordinarily powerful presences. You soon forget about them as working studies, which is an academic interest anyway. They have their own energy, as the artist is felt to be searching for the perfect placement of lines which will eventually disappear into seamless inevitability. The faces are quite literally masks, but they are imbued all the more with sharply observed traits that betray their maker’s bid to give them life.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, October 9, 2003