Alex Katz

Timothy Taylor 16×34
515 West 19th St
April 27, 2017–June 30, 2017

Alex Katz, Man with Newspaper on the Subway, ca. 1940s, black ink on paper, 5 x 8".

Even with the phenomenon of “manspreading” or the impending L train apocalypse, the New York subway-riding experience nevertheless continues to evince a gritty nostalgia among the city’s embattled daily commuters. Such sentiments are sure to be piqued by “Subway Drawings,” an exhibition of forty exquisite pencil-and-ink sketches by artist Alex Katz. Dating to the late 1940s, all of the illustrations—originally bound in small notebooks—were made by Katz during his commute on the E train from his childhood home in Queens to the East Village, where, at the time, he was a student at Cooper Union. Uninterested in the models provided by the school, Katz, the story goes, took to the subway and its straphangers for inspiration.

In Man with Newspaper on the Subway (all works ca. 1940s), a seated passenger, blithely reading, is unaware of the protruding belly that threatens to impede upon his momentary idyll. In this sketch, as with others in the show, Katz’s economy of line, matched by his eye for subtle details (a barely hinted-at five-o’clock shadow, a rumpled dress shirt), results in mordant depictions of an urban mise-en-scène reminiscent of George Grosz’s drawings of Weimar-era denizens, albeit missing Grosz’s penchant for the grotesk.

Elsewhere, in Crowd on Subway, the occupants of a packed train car include women in their sartorial finery (no athleisure apparel back then) and a bespectacled rider gazing downward, while in Subway Scene Couple, Katz captures a duo unawares. To be sure, there is a voyeur’s delight on Katz’s part, and his quick-handed, on-the-sly drawings, in many ways, presage the appearance of transit-oriented sites such as Instagram’s @hotdudesreading. However, Katz’s voyeurism seems to be less interested in fetishizing the other than in connecting with it. Indeed, what better place to encounter the breadth of humanity than the E train during rush hour?

Joseph Akel