On ViewThe Guggenheim
Alex Katz: Gathering
October 21, 2022–February 20, 2023
It’s remarkable to be presented with a selection of works by an individual so well known as a quick-take artist such as Alex Katz that proves an occasion to reflectively drag one’s feet. The ninety-five-year-old artist hasn’t at all slowed down. The probity of his lightning painterly wit is apparent amidst the ambitiously scaled and tenuously delineated recent landscapes on the top floor of the museum where the aggressively minimal White Reflection (2020) stands out. Yet fully taking in the exhibition’s epic combination of works demands successive starts and pauses to allow for historical and personal reflection, as if slowly sifting through snapshot evidence of one’s own familial and social histories. Katz’s individual portraits, figurative groupings, and landscapes form a highly personal and potentially arcane firmament of scenarios yet their forthright presentation in simplified motifs and bold color paradoxically make his deeply subjective journey available to all. One wants to linger amidst these works as one would at a dinner party swinging with stimulating conversation or even at a family reunion in which snippets of personal anecdotes manage to weave epic tales. Interestingly, this draw of discursive energy permeates both Katz’s people and places. The curator Katherine Brison underscores this through repeated juxtapositions of the portraits with the landscapes, just one of her concise and engaging installation strategies. It is the countervailing force of her curatorial savvy that lends the exhibition its vital frisson, a warm interlocution of Katz’s ineluctable “cool.”
Coming into his own in the late 1950s, in a downtown New York art world that itself had just come of age, Alex Katz managed to forge a personal style of painting that he’s tempered ever since. He ventured into that frothy milieu of Abstract Expressionism exemplified by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline et al. with an extremely reductive figurative style. In 1959, he showed a series of paintings of his wife Ada and friends such as art historians Lucy and Irving Sandler. Painterly adept and akin to the figuration of Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher yet verging on illustrative caricature, Katz termed these “specific portraits.” When Katz was taken to task for his inception of such an ostensibly banal style he was encouraged by de Kooning and other friends in the New York school of poets and writers (including Frank O’Hara and Edwin Denby) to stick to his guns. In past interviews he’s acknowledged his good fortune to come up amongst such a culturally astute and literate crowd, many of whom would eventually make up his array of subjects. Portraits of poets Ted Berrigan, Leroi Jones and Anne Waldman are included here among others past and present. While the Abstract Expressionists at large were transfiguring the historical formal innovations leading from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and Cubism to Surrealism, Katz was formulating a latter-day American response (similar to Milton Avery) to inter-world war Matisse. And concerning the risk of appearing overly simple, Matisse’s wonderfully self-referential statement, “He who uses simple techniques must not be afraid to appear banal”1 is a concept to which Katz himself would readily adhere. As with Matisse, what immediately engages one when encountering any Katz painting is their seemingly effortless execution characterized by formally fluid compositions wrought in bracing color.
The sequential bays of the Guggenheim are perfectly suited to Katz’s varied scenarios. The artist’s dual compositional tactics of the stage-set vignette and cinematic freeze- frame nest almost perfectly within Frank Lloyd Wright’s art pilgrim stations. Two examples include The Cocktail Party (1965) in which a gathering of intellectuals and artists seem to change opinions and partners in a casually strategic social choreography evoking a Pinter or Sondheim play, and the exaggerated effect of the artist’s wife repeated six times in the same static pose in Departure (Ada) (2016). The latter summons an idée fixe of a perpetually strobing zoetrope. Such analogies of relaxed intensity and sequentially arrested motion permeate the exhibition. Scanning across the museum’s atrium amplifies these effects, so that while one is backing into the veritable Sumerian stare of Katz’s monumental portrait of critic and poet Edwin Denby, Edwin (1972), on one side, a jump-cut mélange of Katz’s portraits, group scenes and landscapes vies for one’s attention on the other. The shadows of visitors silhouetted against this vivid bustle echo the artist’s cut-outs. One represents a fellow artist of the everyday, Joe Brainard (1966). Elsewhere one encounters Allen Ginsberg (1985) in six uneasy pieces, suggesting that the grandiloquent complexity of his subject’s lyrical reach was almost too much for Katz to contain.
Matisse held in lifelong contempt his potential for slipping into a mannerism of his own making. Katz wrestled the abiding daemon of mannerism to the ground to then give it a Coke.2 He managed to combine (to paraphrase critic Harold Rosenberg from his 1959 book The Tradition of the New) the billboard of American life with an individualism heretofore obscured by the weeds behind it. By depicting his close friends and family in broad strokes he has paradoxically expanded given definitions of the familiar limit. Within his poem Chocorua to its Neighbor, Wallace Stevens could be describing Katz’s singular achievement in his life’s work as a type of humane aporia:
To say more than human things with human voice,
That cannot be; to say human things with more
Than human voice, that, also, cannot be;
To speak humanly from the height or from the depth
Of human things, that is acutest speech.
Gathering will no doubt elicit calls for Katz to be anointed an elder statesman for the return of the repressed figure in contemporary art, the way in which Neil Young was retroactively instated as the “Godfather of Grunge” in the early 1990s. Who would deny Katz’s influence on painters the likes of Elizabeth Peyton, Amy Sherald and many others. What this retrospective makes clear though, is that Katz remains in a league of his own, defined by his cool regard for the sentimental distance to be found in his own backyard. Perhaps his greatest legacy will be his insistence, via the very acute speech of his paintings, that a global grandeur can be found there.
- Matisse, Henri, from a 1931 interview with Gotthard Jedlicka, in Matisse on Art, edited by Jack Flam, 1995, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995 p. 102.
- The artist’s friend Frank O’Hara would express a similarly egalitarian desire in his 1960 poem “Having a Coke With You.”