“Fashion fades; only style remains the same,” said Coco Chanel. Alex Katz has style, evidenced by his ability to simplify the image of a painting through the constancy of his touch, harmonizing contemporary visual specifics with classic physiognomies in unexpected scales, endlessly refreshing our perception every time we confront either an old or new work.
On ViewMuseum of Fine Arts
April 28 – July 29, 2012
Katz’s ambitious vision developed in the early 1950s, the New York School era of large works, when making small figurative paintings from observation was considered regressive. From 1955 to ’59, Katz made delicate collages from cut pieces of hand-colored paper, the works measuring no more than eight by ten inches; these were undoubtedly critical to his mature style in terms of establishing an understanding of scale achieved by the clarity of elemental forms painted with flat colors. Katz did something unusual indeed by carving out a path that was neither directed toward the gestural manifestation of personal expression (the exalted virtue of Abstract Expressionist pathos) nor toward employing mass-produced images to explore contemporary culture.
Katz’s self-imposed differences from his peers undoubtedly resulted from his perpetual observation of everyday events and his willingness to embrace change in the world surrounding him. With a keen interest in film, television, fashion, and billboard advertising—outlets which all compete for fleeting visual novelty—Katz essentially inhaled images. He devoured with equal fervor images of his New York social world, including artists, poets, critics, dancers, and fashion models, and the natural world of his second home in Maine; a pantheistic sentiment is revealed in his landscapes.
Katz has stated, “I create my own style to be the content of the painting.” This reminds me of Henri Rousseau’s sincere toast to Picasso at the famous banquet in 1908: “You and I are the two most important artists of the age—you in the Egyptian style and I in the modern one.” Curiously, Rousseau’s unfathomable images of jungle scenes, which sprang from contemporary illustrated books, taxidermy tableaux in museums, and botanical gardens, must have made Parisians feel closer to home, to their French popular culture. In a similar way, Katz’s images of the gaiety of human appearances and the nurturing aspects of nature, depicted in such distinct light and elegance, give us a profound reminder of where we are in our own time. It’s as if each image is caught between static silhouetted shapes against flat backgrounds and effortless brushstrokes, large or small, with just the right amount of paint in them to pull wet-into-wet, while retaining the light throughout. This particular way of painting stirs within us a deep appreciation for simplicity and joy, viscerally evoking the pleasures of life, though we know that before our eyes is an endless overcoming of the concentrated angst hidden beneath the painted surface.
I often dream of a potential retrospective of Katz’s paintings. We have not seen such a show in New York since the 1986 retrospective at the Whitney. It would be quite a visual spectacle, possibly overwhelming and certainly eventful, given the large sizes of many of his landmark canvases. It might allow us to identify the personalities that belong to the cultural milieu of Katz’s New York, while catching a few breaths of fresh Maine air. In the absence of an overview of his paintings, I relished my chance to see the large selection of Katz’s graphic enterprise now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (The same show, in a slightly different form, was initially on view at the Albertina in Vienna in 2010, the Kunsthalle Würth in Schwäbisch Hall in 2011, and earlier this year at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt.) Clearly the prints are closely linked to his paintings, and they ought to be considered parallel to the course of the development of his painting style.
The Boston exhibition is installed non-chronologically, and although Katz had undertaken printmaking as early as 1947, this grouping begins with “Luna Park 1” (1965) and continues to the present. With every conceivable technique, including screen prints, lithographs, photo-offset lithographs, etchings, soft-ground etchings, aquatints, woodcuts, woodblocks, and linocuts, Katz has maximized the harmony of particular techniques with specific images. From the very start, I was taken with the combination of contrasts. In the first gallery are two versions of “Boy with Branch” (1975 and 1975/76), which are subtle in tonal range. The young boy’s supple face is cropped, centered in the foreground of the horizontal field, surrounded by branches; a landscape with a lake is seen in the far background. In sharp contrast, the boldly delineated “Olympic Swimmer” (1976) articulates motion through a slash of water that cuts across a near-profile of the swimmer, who is anchored by the vertical field. “Orange Hat” (1990) monumentalizes the whole horizontal plane with a woman’s profile tucked below the perfect symmetry of the hat, while “Alex at Cheat Lake” (1969) exposes the artist’s own full-frontal figure, standing to the far right of the lake landscape; his head is in profile, the decisive white stripes in his suit loud against the gentle shading of his face and hand. “Self-Portrait” (1978) offers a different version of self-glamorization, with its benevolent smile and a sensitive use of tones and cropping. A contrasting image is “Sweatshirt II” (1990) where the painter is portrayed without fanfare as an average American man wearing typical American clothes.
Upon entering the third gallery, the theme of movement and gesture becomes dominant. It begins with “Night: William Dunas Dance/Pamela 1 – 4” (1983), where Pamela, clad in a dark violet leotard, stretches against the flat grey background, her neutral skin tone a warm yellow, plumped slightly by a touch of lighter yellow; a broad brown area, with both sharp and feathery edges, delineates her hair. Then follows “Light as Air” (1985–89), which features 12 close-ups of Ada’s hand gestures, made in collaboration with the poet Ron Padgett. In an adjacent corner is Katz’s classic “Black Shoes” (1987), which at once invokes Rudy Burckhardt’s magnificent late 1960s and early 1970s photographs of anonymous feet walking down the street.
Some other highlights of the show are “Anne” (1990), a screen print on aluminum cut-out, and “Pas de deux” (1993/94), a set of five screen prints which includes five couples, one couple in each print: David Salle and Janet Leonard, Danny Moynihan and Laura Faber, Francesco and Alba Clemente, Vicki Hudspith and Wally Tuberville, Red Grooms and Elizabeth Ross. This series is one of the best exemplifications of Katz’s high gothic elegance. Meanwhile, the economy of shapes, tones, and lines—achieved with only one shade of grey and one type of line, varied through hand pressure alone—couldn’t have been more simply and effectively utilized in the large image of an embracing couple in “Sunset” (1984). “Brisk Day” (1990) repeats the same image of Ada in three distinct printing techniques (woodblock, aquatint, and screenprint). One feels a small thrill upon discovering the slight differences in the highlights of her hair, the tuft before her left ear, the turn of the bottom of her chin, the surfaces of the paper.
The last two galleries were notable for the utmost reduction and simplicity of form in Katz’s “Vivien on Red” (2007) and “Vivien on Blue” (2007), as well as for the revelation of his printing process through the display of three sheets of marked-up mylar working drawings that still remain mysterious in relation to the final print “Black Brook 10” (1995), displayed nearby. The exhibition’s most surprising inclusion did not involve print techniques: the masterwork “Rush” (1971), 37 painted life-size cutouts of heads on aluminum, which depict faces of friends, including painters Al Held, Brice Marden, and Yvonne Jacquette; poets Edwin Denby and Ron Padgett; critics Irving Sandler and Robert Rosenblum; and Vincent Katz and Ada Katz, among others, all painted from different angles and installed at eye-level with ample intermediary space, creating a rhythm of heads throughout the room. A feeling of intimacy is established as one is introduced to each and every one of them while walking slowly through. They exist in an astonishing state between general likeness and individual spirit.
Coming away, I remembered Katz’s insight about Warhol and Johns: “They were the two printmakers who really challenged the European tradition—Warhol by making it, in a sense, more graphic and Johns by making it more painterly.” In a very real sense, the observation reveals Katz’s awareness of where he stands, which refers back to another famous remark by Coco Chanel: “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”
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