Herding Katz

Linda Yablonsky at the opening of “Alex Katz: Gathering”

Art advisor Kim Heirston with Blue Umbrella 2 in the background.

LAST FRIDAY EVENING, a sudden commotion interrupted the opening of “Alex Katz: Gathering” at the Guggenheim Museum.

It was not a protest or a stunt. Just as outgoing director Richard Armstrong informed the New York Social Diary photographer Jill Krementz that the ninety-five-year-old artist was not expected to appear, he materialized—seemingly out of nowhere—on the bottom ramp of the rotunda. Once spotted, the sound of applause and cheers erupting in the lobby gained decibels as the hundreds of people on the upper tiers joined a spontaneous demonstration right out of Hello, Dolly!

Looking swell in a stark white suit and yellow tie, with dealer Gavin Brown and “Gathering” curator Katherine Brinson at his side, the stunned Katz raised and fluttered his hands to acknowledge his welcome to the top of the art world, where, at that moment, he belonged. Still glowin’, still crowin’, still goin’ strong.

“I bought an Alex Katz only this morning!” exclaimed art advisor Kim Heirston, just in from a buying spree at Paris+ by Art Basel. She was feeling lucky. So was everyone present. To see Katz get his due was to feel the pleasure of a Secret Santa gift exchange that works for both parties.

Despite the number of works on view (154), Brinson’s astute selection of portraits, florals, and landscape paintings made the show’s eight-decade spread feel somehow lean, almost austere. “Katherine removed all of my rough edges,” Katz joked, with a grin as wide as Fifth Avenue. Or maybe he was serious.

Poet Vincent Katz with his wife, Vivien Bittencourt, and their sons, Oliver and Isaac Katz.

Early paintings, including a self-portrait and a grisaille bedroom interior that even the knowledgeable didn’t know, flowed into a master class in figurative painting that could send trendy, younger artists back to their drawing boards. Freestanding, painted-aluminum cutouts of cocktail-swilling figures mingled with first-nighters on the ramps in such lifelike poses that collectors Marty and Rebecca Eisenberg actually tried conversing with Katz’s 1959–60 portrait of Frank O’Hara.

In a level-seven tower gallery of recent, nearly abstract works that concluded the show, a Rymanesque expanse of white-on-white faced an apparition—a reductive and poignant portrait of Ada, Katz’s currently ailing wife and most frequent subject. In Blue Umbrella 2, 1972, the cinematic portrait in the lobby that kicks off the show, she looks as glamorous as Audrey Hepburn. All we see in the final painting is the back of her silver-haired head in a moment of intimate observation that conveys an otherwise inexpressible depth of love.

Artist David Salle and Stephanie Manes.

The evening also marked the sixty-third anniversary of the Guggenheim flagship. Again and again, I heard people say what a big favor the Katz retrospective has done for it. The sinewy walls and sloping floors have not always been kind to art or viewers. The experience can be dizzying. This time it caused palpitations for all the right reasons. No matter where one looked or from what height or distance, every single canvas was legible and animated enough to make Frank Lloyd Wright sit up in his grave.

In the post-Covid days since its blockbuster Hilma af Klint show, the museum has been notably lacking in pizzazz and embroiled in staff conflicts enumerated by a recent exposé in The Atlantic. Word of the as-yet-unexplained elimination of the $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize followed days later, with a lot of guessing about replacements for Armstrong, who is retiring, and the departed chief curator Nancy Spector.

On this night, however, no one talked about anything but Alex Katz—unless it was to mourn the passing earlier that day of art critic Peter Schjeldahl. Is there another as beloved? (Name one.) As Jasper Johns biographer Deborah Solomon remarked, “I wasn’t sure it was right to come here after that news.” But it was right, if sad to realize that Schjeldahl would be providing no tonic to the immediate consensus on the show. (The gift shop was already sold out of every Katz-flower bucket hat in stock.) “His pictures present a world of perfect dinner guests—graceful, untroubled, irresistibly attractive,” Schjeldahl once wrote of Katz. “A beguiling fiction,” he added.

Not on this occasion.

The 150 guests at Orsay for a dinner in Katz’s honor fit that description perfectly. Even proudly. Among them were an impressive number and variety of artists, not all of whom are associated with either Barbara Gladstone or Thaddaeus Ropac, who hosted. Here was Louise Lawler, Dana Schutz, Jack Pierson, and Nate Lowman to rub shoulders with Marianne Vitale, Eric N. Mack, Rachel Rose, Ian Cheng and writers Eileen Myles, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Richard Hell. Katz family members high-fived friends like Joan Jonas and Yvonne Force Villareal who have posed for Katz portraits, while Shirin Neshat fretted over the art world’s tepid response to the war on women that the government of her native Iran is waging. (To her surprise, Iranian-born artists staged a protest at the Guggenheim the very next day—a step in the right direction.)

Katz was at the head table with Arthur Jafa (a contributor to the exhibition catalogue), Brinson, Armstrong, David Salle, the Wooster Group’s Kate Valk and Cynthia Hedstrom, and Gavin Brown, whose resolute commitment to Katz’s work kickstarted the artist’s resurgence a decade ago, after he left Pace.

Brown may be the most articulate and gracious toastmaster in the art world today. “The man sleeps and paints, and sleeps and paints, and sleeps and paints,” he said of Katz in his tribute, and compared Brinson’s exhibition to a magic spell. “It conjured up a reality of this city that we all still believe in. A world of poets. Dancers. Writers. Musicians. Filmmakers. Sons, daughters, lovers. Friends. In that sense Alex, through his unrelenting drive over the past eighty years, has helped make this life in art possible for all of us.”

Alex Katz makes a surprise appearance at the opening of his retrospective. Video: Matthew Higgs.

Alex Katz.

Artist Joan Jonas.

Artist Jacqueline Humphries.

Dealer Jose Martos and White Columns director Matthew Higgs.

Guggenheim curator Katherine Brinson.

Alex Katz and Arthur Jafa.

Katz cutouts.

Artist Nate Lowman with Lucy Charlesworth Poe and Vanity Fair columnist Nate Freeman.

Dealer Jeffrey Grove and and curator Olga Viso.

Alex Katz, Yvonne Force Villareal, and Quatro Villareal.

Collector Marty Eisenberg with curator Russell Ferguson and collector Rebecca Eisenberg.

Outgoing Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong.

Kent Sepkowitz and writer Deborah Solomon.

Alex Katz (in white) and admirers at the opening of his retrospective. All photos: Linda Yablonsky.