Alex Katz: A Painter for Our Time

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Now in his 95th year, Alex Katz continues to paint marvelous portraits, depictions of social scenes, and landscapes, often based on the terrain and trees of his summer house in Maine. Outside of his time in Maine, Katz has spent his career in New York, where he has participated for decades with the artists, writers (in particular, poets), and dancers he has known for so long, as well as his immediate family. He has devoted particular attention to his wife, Ada, who is seen regularly in his art, often wearing an extravagant hat. His son Vincent Katz, also an artist–he is a gifted poet and a classicist–is also found in the show, from the time of boyhood to adult years. Katz’s paintings are characterized by a very flat presentation, with people and nature considered in direct, simple, but compelling fashion. His show, “Alex Katz: Gathering,” at the Guggenheim Museum, offers the opportunity to see the eight-decades-long career of a man who has devoted his considerable energy and skill not only to the development of an immediately striking, recognizable style, but also to a record of a downtown life in New York, at a time when the city was more conducive to living on the periphery.

Katz was born in Brooklyn in 1927. He began studying at Cooper Union in 1946, where he was immersed in studies of modernism. In 1949, he won a fellowship to Skowhegan, the summer residency program in Maine for artists. Five years later, he had his first show, at the Roko Gallery. Living in the heady atmosphere of New York City’s artistic world at the time, he counted among his friends the artists Rudy Burckhardt, Fairfield Porter, and Jane Freilicher, and also had good friendships with New York poets Edwin Denby, John Ashbery, and Frank O’Hara. Within this remarkable milieu of creativity, Katz began with and has remained within the domain of realist painting. He is often described as a Pop painter, although his age made him available to the abstract expressionism movement in the middle of the last century. While he clearly consorted with artists working within this style, his commitment to realism is evident from the beginnings of his career. Today, figurative art seems to be making a comeback; Katz was working within a degree of solitude, given the time’s preference for abstraction while he was working in the second half of the 20th century.  His penchant for recording individuals and groups, as the title of the show indicates is evident early in hs career. The aura of New York City was different then; it had not yet been overwhelmed by the many, many young artists who now crowd the city and pay astonishingly high studio rents to participate in a community too large for the number of galleries in business and for opportunities for coverage.

A friendly, gregarious man, Katz has made a specialty of reporting on the major artistic and poetic figures in New York City at the time. His ability to capture in broad, flat surfaces the telling details of his friends, or the quiet, deep-seated beauty of the Maine woods, make him a painter of high distinction. His work can be described as belonging to the New York School, which is an art category to which more than a few kinds of art belong. During the period of Katz’s youth and early maturity, and even later, he began moving toward a highly recognizable style, which tended to simplify to composition to a single figure, whose grand countenance often filled the painting’s space. It cannot be said, though, that Katz is a traditional painter in a conventional fashion. His figuration is marked by an elegance and swift description that captures the figure or scene in question. Years from now, his works may be of use to scholars studying the relations of the important artists of an earlier time. It’s not that Katz gives us details of lives, but rather he establishes an atmosphere no longer present in the art world. Financial survival was easier then, and the number of artists and writers was fewer. A bohemian life, lived south of 14th Street, was not subject to excessive expenses. Instead, an informal community, in which dancers and choreographers, composers, poets and novelists, and sculptors and painters interacted, created an environment in which experiment and innovation thrived.

Katz has a gift for friendship. As a friend of Fairfield Porter, the painter and critic who lived in Southampton in eastern Long Island, Katz may have enjoyed their common penchant for figuration. Porter, a painter of high sensibility, worked on portraits, interiors, and landscapes notable for their brushy handling. This is more than likely a response to the expressionist abstraction that dominated his active period, although the paintings are fully realist. Like Katz, it may be Porter sought a way of conveying his love of a non-abstract style, even though it was a minority practice at the time. Porter also was active within a circle of poets, including Ashbery, whom he painted; Barbara Guest; and Kenneth Koch. The ties between artists and writers seem to have been stronger during the middle and second half of the previous century; what matters is that both Katz and Porter captured the likenesses of poets whose writings would become central to the New York School (the term was used to characterize authors as well as artists). One needs to remember that New York City was and is a place of remarkable social activity within the arts, so that Katz was recording a circle of relations that depended on extended friendship and, likely, critical regard. The results may be understood as evidence of a time unusual for its shared exchanges and communication. 

Katz is hardly a dry or distant painter, despite the coolness of his work. Instead, his paintings are preoccupied with the consequences of his attention to detail, as well as a devotion to painting for its own sake. It is a devotion that amplifies and establishes his predilection for human presences in his art, and for social exchanges, but also in his remarkable landscape paintings–a favorite genre of this writer. Katz’s vision of nature can bring into his works both a specific treatment of detail and a sense of large expansiveness. In a late painting, called Yellow Tree 1 (2020), the artist has diffuse passages of autumnal yellows highlighted by small, interspersed patches of brown. The black trunk and branches extending horizontally come in and out of view, hidden by the fall foliage. Yellow Tree, as simple as it may seem, is a highly poetic work of art, its colors transcendent as they appear to praise the later season. We know that Katz and his family travel regularly to their home in Maine, and one assumes that the artist’s familiarity with the nature surrounding him has led to a lyric interpretation such as this painting. We can say, too, that the image is free of nostalgia, or melancholy regarding ecological damage. Instead, it is directly a beautiful, highly painterly approximation of fall, in a work that signals the greater freedom Katz has been taking in his late art.

Another late painting, Crosslight (2019), is painted a very dark green. Its subject is apparently the trunks of trees in darkness, whose vertical rises are spotted with bits of white. On the trunk furthest to the right, fairly high up, we see a patch of white that extends down the tree for some length. Although this is pretty clearly a patch of trees in darkness, the thin lines and splashes of light, scattered throughout the picture plane, intimate abstraction. Of course, Katz remains a resolutely figurative artist to this day; but he came of age at a time in \ in New York City when gestural abstract painting was the genre artists subscribed to. Inevitably, it would influence his thinking, apparent now in his current efforts. His view of things, highly social and regularly oriented toward people he knew well, also finds a non–figurative vehemence in some of the work. Ada Ada, painted in 1959, presents a much earlier work that doubles the image of his wife, with short, dark hair, a blue dress and blue shoes. Her hands are crossed in front of her waist, and her face, simply rendered, offers the unusual beauty of a woman who has existed as Katz’s long-time companion and muse. Katz’s ongoing affection for his wife of more than a few decades is evident in the nearly 20 portraits of her throughout the show.

In Frank O’Hara (1959), one of the earliest cutouts made by the artist, the witty poet stands straight in semi-formal dress: a dark green sports coat with a dark tie and black trousers. His shoes rise up above the pedestal supporting the entire figure of O’Harat, the major lyric writer of the 1960s and ‘70s, The way Katz worked things out, the figure was attached to wood and the wood cut to fit the poet’s standing form. There is also a front and a back to this cutout, slightly unusual for Katz. The writer’s sensitive features and receding hairline are rendered with close care. O’Hara was famous for his essay “Personism,” published in Septembe 1959, which relates poetry to people and feelings rather than to an abstract intellectualism, and his book Lunch Poems (1964), written during lunchtime while working as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art. The poet had the knack of seemingly writing about the surface of things while actually introducing moments of true insight and pleasure. He was the best poet of his generation, the kind of writer who stayed in the moment and offered that moment as a gift to the unsuspecting reader. Katz presents him as the brilliant, droll poet he was. 

Katz also painted fellow artists. In the case of Rudy (1980), he portrays the filmmaker and photographer Rudy Burckhardt, born in Basel, Switzerland. Handsome, with a straight, severe gaze, wearing a gray shirt, Burckhard looks directly at his audience. His hair and beard are graying. In the background, we see a deep blue lake with a shore and trees in the distance. On the upper left are two boats. The artist lived in both New York and Maine, and one assumes that this picture shows him in northern New England. Burckhard was one of the most innovative filmmakers of his generation, and fully took part in the Pop milieu. Katz regularly addressed the artists that were part of his life. Another work, made earlier in 1959, is called Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, the famous experimental artist. To Katz’s credit, his portraits reveal no bias in a formal sense; instead, they record the gifted people who were part of his social group, no matter how far from his own work their efforts might be. 

Two versions of Rauschenberg, in a short brown shirt and white pants, exist in the same compositional plane. In both cases, one arm is stretched out on the knee, while the other is lifted upwards. The posture of both images is highly similar. Behind each Rauschenbert is a large window, divided by individual glass panes. Formally, the portrait has an elegance we don’t find much in contemporary painting, but Katz’s decision to paint two pictures of the same person turns a conventional vision into something slightly surreal. This despite the fact that the structure, details, and ambience of the interior in which Rauschenberg sits is conventional. Yet it is an outstanding work of art. For a full century, New York City has been a magnet for artists from outside the city or from foreign places. It is hard to fully understand its allure, but the city’s gritty, urban charm, along with (until recently) cheap rents, has attracted outstanding artists from all over the world. Burckhardt came from Basel, while Rauschenberg was born in Port Arthur, Texas. New York continues to attract painters and sculptors from all places, but the moment of informal expressiveness is not so available anymore, having been replaced by academic bureaucracies that hand out limiting degrees.

Katz even has a memorable self-portrait in the show: Alex Katz: Self Portrait (Passing) (1990). Here we see the face of a somber, middle-aged man wearing a suit jacket, a white shirt, and a black tie. Likely the most striking element in the work is the artist’s dark brown fedora, with a black band and short rim. Katz here possesses, but momentarily, the demeanor and outfit of a businessman, even though by 1990 he had been recognized as a major painter for some time. The work’s sobriety undercuts the flower and trees, the poets and dancers, the landscapes and interiors that delight us throughout the show. But, at the same time, there is the simple planar organization that is animated by careful study of the face. Of course, Katz is not a businessman in any sense, except maybe in the sales of his art. More important, the portrait stands out for its muted colors and mood, as well as simple, but careful treatment of his fac. Usually, the artist jumps into the midst of gatherings, rendering women’s beautiful demeanors and figures in a colloquial, engaging fashion. The emphasis on enjoyment and social interaction is clear; this leaning toward sophisticated pleasure can easily put him in the category of a Pop artist, even if his picture of himself suggests a different outlook.

It is hard to say whether Katz is fully a Pop artist. His art is as much about the pleasures of painting as it is a homage to the casual, congenial existence we associate with American culture. The work of the last few generations, immediately following the waning of the abstract expressionists (during whose time Katz was working) began to take lifestyle as a major influence on the way painterly images were made. Katz’s cocktail parties and informal get-togethers convey a sense of a happier, probably simpler time, when life was not exorbitantly expensive, and one could work a minimum of hours in order to paint. What is evident from the start is Katz’s interest in both art and people. It might be argued that he stays away from darker, more profound themes, but such a comment mistakes his orientation. Instead, it looks like Katz embraces the casual grace of a New York City past that has since been overcome by overcrowding, gentrification, and a passion for cash. Pop art, in the hands of its originator Andy Warhol in the early 1960s, became a vehicle for cultural democracy. But, given the skill and poise of Katz’s work, we need to say he has been facing a different direction. The informality of his themes is supported by a remarkable ability to capture, usually in broad, simple forms, the life of his generation of artists. As such, the paintings take on historical value as records of the moment–or they will  as time passes.

The Pop emphasis on taking enjoyment in America’s casual, but intelligent, way of living is today replaced by a severe politics of identity. This makes sense, given the increasing complexities, ethnic, racial, religiious, and so on, that influence daily life and art. But Katz, now 95 years old, belongs to a different time. It was a period of understated, informal mastery, a quality still flourishing in the artist’s recent work. Moreover, as I have commented, it cannot be fully demonstrated that Katz is only a Pop painter. Instead, his sensibility leans toward a lyric romanticism celebrating a time of burgeoning experimentation in art, as evidenced in his paintings of dancers, who were often leaders in New York’s avant-garde. People like Jasper Johns came to New York City to remake their lives and work out a challenging esthetic. Although that period of high-minded glee has passed, it does not mean that the spirit of adventure left Katz’s work, then or now. Unlike Warhol, whose obsession with a materialist esthetic, one openly given to money, Katz kept to the artistic side of things. His embrace of different kinds of art–painting, poetry, dance–allowed him to describe the personalities and, in a few cases, the imagination of the extraordinary people around him. Now that so high number of artists has flooded the city, we are less in a position to relax and innovate. But Katz’s development at a time when a downtown world was flourishing has resulted in art of singular interest.

In a yellowish tan interior, called 4 PM (1959), Katz delivers another understated ode to his wife Ada. The background, above and below, of the painting is rendered in yellow. A large set of curtains, placed in the upper left dominates the upper register. Next to it, on the right is a painting, another yellow interior, hung on the wall, a bit above the figure of Katz’s wife. She sits next to a pillow on a couch, her arms crossed and resting on her lap. To the left, underneath large white curtains, are two chairs placed in front of a round coffee table. Leading to the table is a long white rectangle on the floor–an area rug contrasting in hue with the painting’s yellow background. At the bottom right, there is a brown square that looks like the side of a cabinet. This is a painting whose emotional involvement cannot be separated from the gorgeous way it is painted. We know that Ada has been a major support for Katz for decades, but this painting took place when their attachment was clse to new. Its subtlety and emphasis on the attractiveness of a well-appointed room reminds the viewer of Vuillard. More openly than usual, 4 PM seems to give way to an atmosphere not so luxurious as happily comfortable. Katz is a gifted painter of emotional content.

Now that Katz is a nonagenarian, it is hard to know where he will next proceed. The late paintings show him opening up and taking chances with an indefinition not seen in the earlier works, determined by sharp outlines. More than writers, painters seem to come into their own as they age; Katz is proof of this. I do not mean to lessen his earlier accomplishments, only that his art now has begun internalizing very large principles of form and composition that make his work compositionally memorable. The paintings of course can be related to his former efforts, the landscapes especially. But at Katz’s age, the risks he is taking indicate bravery and a willingness to continue searching. This is no small thing for someone so late in life, at a time when most of us rehearse the past rather than look to the future. In contrast, Katz pushes on in the most elegant fashion. His new work looks as vibrant, or more so, as the arte he mad decades ago. People and nature, always important to him, remain alive and vibrant rather than memorials to another time. It is remarkable to see so large an achievement continue unabated.

 

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