Alex Katz: Gathering
On ViewSolomon R. Guggenheim Museum
October 21, 2022–February 20, 2023
At the Guggenheim, Katherine Brinson’s exhibition Alex Katz: Gathering represents eight decades of the ninety-five-year-old artist’s career. Though hung in chronological order, it is not quite a retrospective, as too many important subjects are missing, nor is it a thematic show, since many one-off anomalies have been included. What the show does reveal are Katz’s strengths, affinities, and his politic. It might be best to think of it as a tightly-knit show of selected works, which unravels about half-way through as Katz’s imagery becomes increasingly abstract.
Beginning with a group of Katz’s student works, it jump-cuts to a large gallery filled with recent large, semi-abstract works. Then we are met by some modest-size early works in saccharine sweet pinks and pastel greens, which depict highly abstracted figures in the landscape. Beyond these are Katz’s seminal Manet-esque portraits of full-figures centered on monochromatic grounds from the late 1950s and early ’60s, which portray an array of artists, poets, dancers, and critics associated with the second-generation AbEx art scene. While executed in a wet-on-wet painterly style, these works are restrained when compared to the slashing rapidity of Elaine de Kooning’s portraits of “prominent men” from around the same time.
Using art-historical references, mining the aesthetics of abstract painting, and borrowing the banal point-of-view of television, advertising, and the snapshot, Katz lets us know his work is meant to be understood within the modernist tradition that runs from Manet to Edward Hopper and thru to abstraction and Pop. In the late 1950s, Katz introduces the idea of repetition and variation into his work, by making side-by-side images of the same sitter. These echo Larry Rivers’s Double Portrait of Berdie and Robert Rauschenberg’s Rebus, which were both painted in 1955. Then in 1959, Katz starts freeing his figures from the confines of the canvas by making full-figure and portrait-head cutouts in differing scales.
What is consistent over the decades is Katz’s principally white and seemingly classless cast of characters, who are often isolated, self-absorbed and seldom engaged in any task. Though some of these people reappear in Katz’s painting’s over the years, all that seems to have changed is that they have grown older. Unlike Fairfield Porter’s snap-shot based paintings of his bucolic family life, one learns little here about the social relations or cultural context of Katz’s subjects. Meanwhile, the few paintings in this show where the artist attempts to place figures into actual environments display an unexpected awkwardness.
The mimetic references in Katz’s paintings, like those used by Lois Dodd, Wayne Thiebaud, and Chuck Close, release them from having to invent abstract forms by supplying structure, if not subject. Consequently, the flattening out of Katz’s imagery in the 1960s parallels abstract painting’s move away from the gestural toward a hard-edge aesthetic. Over the course of his career, Katz has moved from the shallow stage-like space of naturalism, to the flattened modernist space of Manet where his object-like figures occupy a field comparable to the seamless paper of the commercial photographer’s studio, and finally to the close-up of cinema and the billboard.
What we are made aware of is that Katz’s works have no stories to tell. While stylistically similar to the paintings of his peer Rosalyn Drexler, which also featured highly-saturated monochromatic grounds and flat, graphic images of men and women, Katz in fact takes an antithetical approach. Drexler’s works give expression to brutality, desire, pathos, and playfulness, while Katz makes a conscious effort to repress the anecdotal and emphasize his works’ formal aesthetics. Nonetheless, he retains the theatricality of Minimalism and Pop and weds it to the state of absorption that Michael Fried famously championed in the 1960s. Subsequently, when the grotesque, theatrically-cartoonish realism of John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, or Takashi Murakami came into vogue, Katz’s works appeared familiar and comfortable—like Matisse’s proverbial armchair.
The fact that most people seem to know artworks from reproductions may have fed the erroneous notion that Katz’s work is facile or cartoonish. In reproductions one loses a sense of his succinct brushwork and the subtleness of his color. What becomes obvious in person is Katz’s insight into his subjects and the sense of melancholy, suspicion, discomfit, or sadness that is emoted via the crook of an arm, or the squint of an eye. Ironically, the way Katz appears in reproduction has greatly influenced a younger generation of artists attracted to the social content inherent in making paintings of isolated individuals. As such, Katz’s aesthetic has become part of the conversation concerning identity and objectification, as some younger artists of color choose to represent themselves, their peers, and their communities via flattened (often decoratively patterned), disembodied, and decontextualized images.
In the gentrified world Katz represents, we see a reflection of the myopic heterotopia of privilege, which filters out the conflicts of the everyday world. Seemingly what Katz desires is a good life that is uneventful and predictable. As the Talking Heads put it: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” This was not always so; in the late fifties and early sixties, Katz’s isolated figures metaphorically represented the existential sense of disembodiment and isolation produced by the flattening of human experiences by technology. Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse identified this phenomenon as the emergence of “one-dimensional man”.
As the Cold War period of existential doubt and conformity gave way to the civil rights, women’s, gay, and anti-war movements of the 1960s—as well as the alternative impulses of escape into sex, drugs, and rock and roll—Katz moved closer to his subjects, removing foreground and background. The whole figure gives way to close-ups of heads or gigantic flowers, which blot-out the world around them. By the 1990s he introduces nocturnes of rural night skies and darkened cities. In the late 2010s, an era of renewed assaults on liberal society, Katz more or less abandons the figure and makes gargantuan paintings of weather and nature, whose gestural brushwork and scale look back to the heroic AbEx art of his youth and the challenge he did not take up at that time. It is with a room of these recent paintings this show ends.