Critics’ Picks

Alex Katz, Coleman Pond, 1975, oil on aluminum, 94 x 162".

Alex Katz, Coleman Pond, 1975, oil on aluminum, 94 x 162".


Alex Katz

Thaddaeus Ropac | Pantin
69 avenue du Général Leclerc
April 14–July 12, 2014

Boasting one hundred–odd portraits from the past forty-five years, Alex Katz’s first major retrospective in France opens with the atypical series “Women in Jackets,” 1996. Spanning the gallery’s long entry hall, ten oil-on-aluminum cutouts suggest a row of smartly dressed gallerygoers. Freed from the fictive background of the picture plane, these women greet the viewer in “real space.” Confounding the cutouts’ immediacy, however, their flatness is reinforced by uniform cropping at midforehead and midthigh in accordance with an unyielding (if invisible) rectangular frame. Throughout the show, similar tensions—suggesting oppositions such as painting versus sculpture, figuration versus abstraction, original versus reproduction—reveal unexpected diversity within Katz’s career-long exploration of the human figure.

A double-sided oil-on-aluminum cutout sculpture, Coleman Pond, 1975, depicts three canoes supported by a metal stand. Stationary and flat, this work nonetheless conveys a sense of dimensionality, immediacy, and motion not often associated with Katz’s paintings. Depending on the viewer’s vantage, the boaters alternately appear to paddle toward or away, dipping their oars into implied glassy waters flowing through the gallery’s open space. More typically, however, Katz’s subjects are confined to painted backgrounds (pastoral landscapes, artists’ lofts, even monochromes) wherein figuration often mingles with abstraction. In Private Domain, 1969, one of several dancer paintings on view, the gray negative space between overlapping and entwined bodies is an appropriately rhythmic succession of graceful forms.

Double portraits are an important subgenre of Katz’s oeuvre (his first, Ada Ada, 1959, which is not in the show, notably predates Warhol’s Double Elvis, 1963) wherein the artist confronts issues of reproduction and multiple perspectives. In addition to compositions in which the same individuals or couples appear twice, Laure and Alain, 1964, a close-up of a blue-eyed man whose profile overlaps a front-facing red-haired woman, here abuts a piece of the same title and same composition painted almost thirty years later, in 1991—which turns out to be a painting of the earlier work. The lack of distinction between the two adds an interesting conceptual twist to Katz’s portraiture overall.