PRINT January 1976

Alex Katz’s Development

IT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED THAT realism was discredited in the 1940s and ’50s more because its “crises were internal in origin” than because of oppression by abstract art.1 Still, some realists felt oppressed by abstract art, among them Philip Pearlstein and Audrey Flack, and there can be no doubt at all that the esthetics of the leading critics were geared to abstraction.

However, Alex Katz’s development reveals no opposition to abstract art. He said in 1964: “The whole process of working to me somehow is conscious—I mean in that if you want a drip, you overload a brush and if you want washes you don’t start plastering and if you want to work it up with three coats, you put on three coats—one, two, three—and so somehow it seems that, although you might not know exactly what a picture will look like, you know what your technique is and that you control a controllable thing.”2 This sounds so sensible that one could overlook the fact that at the time this actually constituted hard-nosed resistance to gestural Abstract Expressionism. (The existential theory of improvisation that underlay it was always a curious notion: the artist worked in a void, supposedly never knowing what was coming, but always ending up with a perfectly characteristic work, like another elegy.) The illuminating point is that Katz, a realist, felt compelled to define his painting in relation to abstract, not figurative, art. Having compared himself to the older generation he could conclude that style was an objective possession of the artist’s, well within the reach of reason and not attached to a metaphysical realm. This confidence in intelligence placed him in a good position from which to face the “internal crisis” of realism and to benefit from his relation to abstract painting.

Much representational painting since the 1920s revealed little attachment to appearances and conveyed little sense of fact. The world was filtered through a screen of archaisms or modernisms with the result that the painted figures and objects have only the most attenuated contact with common experience. There was a widespread lack of confidence in iconic representation (iconicity meaning the physical correspondence of a sign to its referent). As a result the referents, the subjects in the world depicted by the painting, are at a considerable remove from the signifier, the painted image. Obtrusive formalism intercedes so that we are faced with an art of displaced or delayed iconicity. Compositional and painterly devices blunt the paintings’ powers of reference. The phases of Andre Derain’s work between the wars are a clear example of this practice. Katz’s belief in art as “a controllable thing” enabled him to establish a reciprocal relation between the observed or, let us say, the essential artificiality of any work of art. That is, he reassembled the mutuality of iconicity and painterliness. His interest was in finding a way to paint that did not dissipate the concreteness of perception and to find a subject matter that did not inhibit the physicality of the medium. He formulated these working terms in the course of the ’50s.

In New York there was an acute sense of common problems and strong pressure to accept particular artists as their momentary representatives. The problem of flatness, or gesture, or the figure, or whatever it might be, was embodied by individuals who did things which other artists felt called on to cope with as part of a natural order of problem-solving. Katz and Jane Freilicher, in a dialogue, show the way in which two realists were alert to the art scene as a field of problems.3 Among the subjects discussed were the first brushstrokes of a picture (a standard Abstract-Expressionist issue) and speed of execution with reference to de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Topical issues of the day were assimilated, as we shall see, into Katz’s painting. Matisse, important for Abstract Expressionism, is crucial to Katz’s development, and he has described the first exhibition of de Kooning’s women in 1953 as being what later jargon calls paradigmatic. That is to say, it raised for Katz, as for other painters, the problem of how figures could be used without any abatement of the motor activity of the artist’s hand.

At the time Katz was not the only image-specifying artist interested in abstract painting. Others tended to be closer to de Kooning’s way of working, developing the picture as a melee of marks which could go in either direction, toward abstraction or toward bodies. The general emphasis on painterliness rather than geometrics, after World War II, resulted in a great deal of loosely figurative art in which the tremor of the hand did double service, as evidence of both the artist’s anxiety and that of the depicted figure. Open brushwork and an iconography of extreme situations were explicitly linked in Francis Bacon’s and surreptitiously linked in de Kooning’s and Giacometti’s paintings. I say surreptitiously because de Kooning’s women and Giacometti’s Baroque revival portraits have no inherent drama; it is all carried by the paint. Katz accepted the requirement of a high level of paint-visibility, but refrained from establishing an ambiguous surface in which a figure was merely one option; his figure was posited from the beginning and looked so. Other artists who shared his belief in a continuous image from beginning to end of a picture were Freilicher and Fairfield Porter. However, Katz is exceptional for the intensive development of his interest in realism and his sustained awareness of abstract art. The occasional resemblance of earlier works by Katz to Milton Avery’s deltas is probably the outcome of trying to reconcile observation of the world with large flat color, rather than a direct influence. Rothko, who, Katz said, taught him about “color as weight,” is the probable model. De Kooning, Katz said, sharpened his sense of the all-at-onceness of the image—what Katz called “velocity”—but he himself avoided the quasi-expressionism of de Kooning’s followers. In short he set up his own definition of painterliness in opposition to the prevailing canon of permissive improvisation.

Possibly as a result of his attention to the Abstract Expressionists, Katz never simplified his relation to Europe. That generation held a deeply ambivalent relationship to Europe, but by comparing their own art to that of European masters, and not merely to their American contemporaries and predecessors, they kept their sights high. Thus Katz could draw, in the ’50s, on aspects of Braque and Manet, as well as Matisse, and not be embarrassed to admit, “I always liked French painting.” There was no question of setting one continent against the other, in one of those 19th-century antitheses which American art criticism has not yet gotten over. Katz moved easily between both. For instance, he felt that Bonnard and Vuillard lacked passion compared to Pollock or Newman. His highest regard was always for Matisse, but he had reservations about his comparatively high level of abstraction (or low iconicity) and disliked the exoticism of his “Persian stuff.” Although Katz painted portraits in 1954 influenced by late Matisse, such as The Sling Chair of a few years earlier (which he saw at the Pierre Matisse Gallery) and light-flooded interiors echoing the Red Studio in the Museum of Modern Art, this is not the conclusive importance of Matisse to him. In fact, the level of signification in Katz’s work as a whole is more comparable to the rationalized and factual character of Matisse’s Nice period in the ’20s than to the early or late periods preferred by “modernist” taste. European painters provided Katz with precedent and information, whereas America provided a sensibility, the set of values through which they had to be filtered. American characteristics include Katz’s devotion to the vernacular image, directness of paint handling, and sense of scale.

The supple accommodation he made with Manet is an instance of skill and acumen. Manet was valuable as an alternative to Cézanne, whose authority as a model had become oppressive. Neither the image of Cézanne as a geometer nor of Cézanne as an existential hero could satisfy representational artists. Manet presented a sophisticated manner of painting that was compatible with the requirement of directness. His simplified tonality and candid surface could be logically adapted to an indigenous imagery and style. This is what Katz was able to do by 1957 in early portraits. In Ada of that year, for instance, the frontal pose, with its easy off-center shifts, the tonal clarity of dark upper torso and halftone skirt against a light ground, the summary definition of the chair are certainly prolongations of a Manetesque mode. Before leaving the European point of departure for Katz’s own style, however, we should not neglect several still-life paintings derived from the late work of Braque, though treated with a Matissean fluency. The supple contour of the central pitcher and the elision of the six apples of Still Life, c. 1953, contribute to the brevity of form description revealed in personal terms in the Ada portrait.

Katz took 1958 as the starting point, so far as his painting was concerned, for his retrospective exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The date at which artists judge the onset of their distinctive, or mature, or characteristic work is always.of interest. It may coincide with a style change, or, as with Katz, it may signal the point at which emerging or implicit ideas solidify. A good example is Ada With White Dress, 1958, in which formal and expressive elements mesh. The figure is seen against a bright green ground, unbroken by a horizon line, though the feet are not painted, as if she were standing in grass. The figure is frontal, but not symmetrical; the edges of the figure define the form precisely, but are sufficiently open to be inflected by the flat background. This has the effect of animating the green spatially and of binding the contrasted figure into the picture. Additionally the broken contouring suggests potential movement, latent gesture and, hence, the humanity of the subject. Human reality and pictorial grace coincide.

In a painting of the following year (1959), Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, Katz made one of the first of what Edwin Denby has called his reduplicative portraits,4 in which singleness of identity is combined with a multiplicity (from two to six) of figures. These portraits may have grown out of interiors Katz had been painting, head-on views of rooms with scattered chairs and two matching windows. The windows recur in the Rausch enberg portrait, framing the complementary heraldic oses of the sitter(s). Katz is economical in presentation, clipped and lean (note the elided chair legs), and at the same time highly observant of shifts of weight and angle in the body. The stylization is reminiscent of the portraiture of first-century A.D. Hellenistic Egyptian portraits, originally attached to mummy cases. Those slender heads and figures have a simplicity of form that makes it impossible to tell if human likeness is in process of stylization or if a convention is softening, Pygmalion-like, to life. It is a kind of human form that looks flexible and capable of movement, but depicted at relaxed and stable moments. Without overt action, it is a human type that implies motion and vitality.

FreiIicher said to Katz: “you have this almost ‘folk art’ look crossed with a very knowledgeable frontal almost Egyptian style. It’s like a blend of Herriman and Giotto.”5 The conjunction of Luke Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat, and Giotto indicates nicely Katz’s illusiveness. William Berkson elaborated on Freilicher’s insight when he described a self-portrait by Katz as “an Arrow shirt ad translated into the gravity of a Coptic funerary portrait.”6 And, liking the form, Berkson also described a painting in which “Ada toasts you head-on as a Byzantine epiphany of the Grant’s girl.”7 Dean Swanson proposed the marriage of Piero della Francesca and Coptic Fayum portraits to catch Katz’s special flavor.8 Each witty pairing is a response, I take it, to Katz’s original use of native and European elements in which, to add another one, the School of Paris is brought to Main Street.

There is another way in which Katz can be linked to late Hellenistic painting. His forms, all of them natural-looking, iconically related to the common sense of appearances, tend to be seen one at a time: eyes complete, lips complete, hair complete. The simple distinctness of each feature is compatible with individual characterization, as Katz demonstrates abundantly, but in addition it gives his figures a schematic, almost ready-made look. This is the primitive or popular aspect that his writers refer to. Eyes, nose, and mouth are not, of course, the only signs of personal identity: complexion and stance are crucial, and Katz’s mastery of complexion as the whole color of a person and of stance as fundamental bearing (no two people lie down in quite the same way) is remarkable. Given these powerful unities Katz is free to systematize individual features without, as a rule, loss of likeness.

In 1962 Katz started to expand the size and scale of his painting. That is to say, the dimensions of his pictures became greater and so did the relation of his figures to the area of the canvas. A possible incentive may have been Rothko, but in any event large canvases were associated with abstract, not realist art at the time. He made a series of big heads, in close-up, of which The Red Smile, 1963, is a stunning example. The head is caught in the movement of turning, and the almost but not quite complete profile confirms the visual sweep into the picture. This action, combined with the extended shoulder and the backward flow of hair, locks the image of the head and the background red together as equal factors. Katz’s characteristic isolation of one feature from another is clearly seen in a picture that is over six feet high. Eyebrow, eye, nose, lips, teeth, are joined by contiguity, not fusion. It is by the congruence and adhesion of separate parts, none of which relinquishes its specificity, that Katz builds up his pictures. To see a head of this size and at the same time to appreciate the smoothness of skin suggests the movies, in which make-up confers an absolute distance on stars’ skins. The angle of the head, implying movement, is made more explicit in Here’s To You, Joe, 1962, the first of a large number of works in which naturally occurring gestures, socially legible and physically familiar, are the subject of study. These normal movements are another source of the physical conviction that Katz’s figures retain, despite all their simplification as images.

It has been assumed by critics who take their sense of history from the prominence of movements that because Pop art was conspicuous it had to have an effect on everybody whose interests touch on vernacular imagery. Warhol’s and Katz’s single heads have been linked on this basis, but there are two factors against it. Katz’s The Red Smile and Here’s To You, Joe are both larger than Warhol’s single heads of Liz, 1963, and Marilyn, 1964 (both series measuring 40 by 40 inches). Katz’s pictures are respectively six-and-a-half by nine-and-a-half feet and four by six-and-a-half feet. The other difference is that Katz, though he simplifies what he sees, paints visually, whereas Warhol’s heads are preexisting images quoted by the artist. The fact is that an interest in vernacular imagery is a constant or at least recurrent factor in American art with sources broader than those of Pop art. For instance, an abrupt journalistic topicality is certainly characteristic of the Ash Can School, several of whose artists actually were newspaper illustrators.

Pop art’s Americana is an episode in a continuing preoccupation of artists with popular culture. This has been especially manifest in the work of realists but it does not mean, as has been suggested, that Pop art is the latest form of American realism. American Pop art has an elaborate formality, closely bound to contemporary abstract art, which refutes such a simple equation. Consider this statement by Grant Wood: “At present, my most useful reference book, and one that is authentic, is a Sears Roebuck catalogue. And so, to my great joy I discovered that in the very commonplace, in my native surroundings, were decorative adventures and that my only difficulty had been in taking them too much for granted.”9 The point is that Wood is consulting the mail order catalogue from which his midwestern subjects would order “the rickrack braid on the aprons of the farmers’ wives, in calico patterns and in lace curtains.”10 He wrote this in 1932 and it was reprinted in 1975, but there is absolutely no reason to suppose that any Pop artists were acquainted with his statement. I bring it forward to emphasize that popular culture is a natural recourse for American artists. It has a far broader base than Pop art alone, which is a special use of the general culture, not its canonical form in art.

The recurrence of Ada as a model in Katz’s art is neither a diaristic matter nor a convenience. On the contrary, her appearance as a constant, in various clothes and settings, is decidedly expressive. We know of Katz’s interest in replicated figures within single canvases, in which the succession of views implies the passage of time. The various roles and moments in which Ada appears are a declaration of the complexity of one’s life. Her multiple appearances are not like those of a ruler painted repeatedly by a court painter, in which each variation reiterates fixity. On the contrary, repetition of the single model functions here as an image of renewed experiences in an ongoing world. This is an essential article of belief for a realist painter, who, lacking an attraction to the life of his time, cannot be a realist at all. The apparent departure from realism by reduplication is actually an affirmation of realist belief. Without reviving earlier styles of realism, Katz has found his own way of affirming the materiality of his subject matter. The paintings of Ada are an inventory of an individual’s extension in time realized in terms of a variety achieved solidly by the traditional means of painting.

A painting like Impala, 1968, then, has a double satisfaction. It is one phase of a historical progress to which we have access, owing to our knowledge of Katz’s other works. It is also an image in which inside and outside space are subtly distinguished by tone and color, even as the horizon, car door, Ada’s head, and her open collar are linearly rhymed. The head is contained by modern red upholstery but outlined upon a geologically ancient landscape. This elaborate array occurs without interrupting the familiarity of the source of the image, a sideways look at someone in a car. It is a reminder too of the fact that gesture does not cease when we relax: gesture, like prose, is unavoidable. Katz’s eye for representative stances, those we all make in response to common stimuli, is brilliantly revealed in Impala.

In opposition to expressionist portraiture as the revelation of human solitude and the aging process, Katz takes pleasure in depicting patterns of sociality. Hence the occurrence of party and leisure subjects in his iconography. David Antin has written of Katz’s sitters that “they are well enough known for most people at all familiar with the art world to know that they are known, though not always well enough known to know who they are.”11 This is delicately put and it includes the extra information that Antin knows them well enough to know who they are. It also assumes that the reader knows who Antin is, or at least that he ought to know. This cycle of self-awareness and doubt is appropriate to Katz’s portraiture, as we shall see.

In the 19th century the function of portraiture changed, and the sitter, who had been a client who hired the artist, changed to become a subject chosen by the artist. Consequently, friends and family took the place of institutional heroes in the most innovative and personal portraits, such as those of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Impressionists. Katz maintains the family connection, with numerous pictures of his wife and son and the peer orientation of his party subjects, of which an early example is Lawn Party, 1965. It is one of those pictures which have become increasingly frequent, in which schematization is heightened fantastically to convert Katz’s usually temperate mood to comedy. This may constitute a link to his friends among New York poets, such as Kenwood Elmslie, for whose book Motor Disturbance, 1971, Katz made the cover. Here cliché becomes hyperbolic somewhat in the way that Katz’s schematization occasionally becomes parodistic. The most populous of his group pictures, One Flight Up, 1968, is a brilliant example of his playing a standard of iconicity against conspicuous artificiality of means. On a long chest-high table are head-and-shoulders cutouts, painted on both sides with front and back views. On one level, it is a sharp image of a crowded party, but it is also an assertion of the muteness of art. Some of the cutouts are sheared so that naturalistic heads are abruptly interrupted. The gleaming metal table that lifts the heads up to eye-level reveals a void beneath, of course, so that Katz tangles naturalism with the most ostentatious artifice. He has not abandoned the harmonious relation of signifier and signified that he achieved earlier, but the two terms are confronting one another with some asperity.

Katz avoids that most reliable form of rhetoric the 20th century knows, the appeal to anguish. He paints situations that depict people in subgroups as these exist between the individual and the mass. He shows not a crude “togetherness,” but the contacts possible within numerousness. There are clear individuals within a prevailing norm, but they are not so heterogeneous as to disturb the group and individual style that gives a trans-individual continuity. In Katz’s portraiture, the sitters are always presented in terms of their self-concepts in field-dependent relationships, responsive to outside events. He is the painter of other-directed sitters who are shaped by their culture rather than their drives. He defines character in terms of traits, such as “cooperative” and “attentive” versus “obstructive” and “cool, aloof.” This is not a shallow mode, but a conception of people in terms of social conduct. It assumes a kind of self-awareness in which our own and others’ expectations of ourselves are inextricable, a psychological condition to which modern Americans are especially sensitive.

The observations quoted about the Arrow shirt and the Grant’s girl indicate the writer’s awareness of the other-directed elements in Katz’s portraits. It is not that Katz is other-directed; on the contrary, his career is stubbornly independent, but this does not preclude his appreciation of the partial conformity that makes possible subgroup membership. For instance, the freshness that marks his sitters is not only a quality of handling, it is cultural attribute, the sophisticated successor of hygiene. This is a quality that Katz draws from a shrewd choice of sitters and his awareness of current public style as expressed in the media. His sitters, usually young professionals and bohemians, are seen at leisure. They are themselves, but keyed to and dependent on others. (This is a psychological convention dependent on being a realist, not on being a Pop artist, though popular culture, in its broad sense, is an essential element.)

Between the portrait of Ada of 1957 and The Red Smile of 1963 there is a considerable change in Katz’s manner of painting. The porous paint skin has been smoothed; it has not become solid, but it is more continuous and less modulated than before. This change in emphasis, from a ruffled to a still surface, is continued if we compare The Red Smile with Impala. Between 1963 and 1968, the dates of these paintings, the paint has become drier; it is no less responsive to Katz’s discriminating judgment of tonal inflection and coloristic blush, but it is sec. Color settles on the canvas, as it were, and the deposit dries with fewer traces of the pressure and direction of the brush. Katz’s earlier succulence has shaded into flexible reticence. As the paint became less substantial, Katz’s schematization became more pronounced, as in The Red Smile, which evokes commercial imagery as well as Hellenistic sources. The point is that Katz is shaping his style as much by the imperatives of the American environment as by the precedents of European painting. Incidentally, both European and Latin American reaction to Katz has been somewhat puzzled by apparent awkwardnesses that seem to frustrate their expectation of high style raised by the traces of Manet and Matisse. Katz has moved in a zone of European models and American adaptations, with the center of gravity gradually but decisively shifting to the American characteristics.

In the ’70s the size and scale of Katz’s painting has continued to expand. The process of dilation has been accompanied by an even less inflected surface, not mechanical but certainly imperturbable. One faces tranquil expanses of paint that signify human physiognomy with engaging calm. He emphasizes halftones and holds down shadow, as a rule, so that a soft glow radiates across these colossal heads and prevents their expansion from being overbearing. It is an understated monumentality. These works represent a culmination of ideas that he has been working with for more than 20 years. The intelligence which previously manifested itself as skepticism now takes the form of super-skill.

In Face of a Poet, 1972, we see the amplification of the double image stated in the Rauschenberg portrait. The two heads of Anne Waldman open out from the patterned center of her head scarf; the composition confers a floral analogue on the whole image. The Hellenistic mode of stylization is wittily maintained; in the head on the right, for instance, both eyelids have 17 eyelashes. Details of this sort can be paralleled in all of the later works, often more emphatically. In Blue Umbrella, 2, 1972, the comic-strip stylization of the raindrops abruptly introduces an archaism, the astringency of which is an essential contrast to the composure of the later style. Working on a large scale with a finite number of elements enables Katz to use detail decisively. In Six Women, 1975, for example, in which his interest in conversation as a subject is maintained, there are six figures and seven eyes. The background reads: wall, window, wall, window, so that the picture starts on the left with a closed surface and ends on the right with an open one. The two most distant figures, one before each window, lean slightly toward one another; they are related also by the top bars of the balcony, which make junctions with the women’s eyes and mouths. On one balcony a cross is visible, on the other not. Thus the picture is crisply schematic, full of arbitrary orderings. This archaistic formality is made visually smooth by the delicate tonality of the whole and by a fundamental reference to common experience which is not expunged. The directions of glances.and the spatial overlappings convey a sharp sense of the differences between physical proximity and mental attention: it is part of Katz’s interest in the patterns of groups.

Style is not only being used functionally to make the painting, it is also being used as subject matter, so that devices take on solidity and character. As the formality becomes outwardly evident there is a corresponding tension set up concerning the subject. The stylization intercepts recognition and easy reading. The condensation of detail and surface gives occasional flatness or stiffness to figures, and elisions make space into a patterned mise en scène. It is not incompatible with his earlier naturalness, but it is a changed emphasis in a spectrum of possibilities. Earlier he evolved a realistic art out of the painterly concerns of abstract art; now he stylizes the fluent imagery of the world he has mastered. It is the latest form of the interests that Freilicher had in mind when she referred to Herriman. This sophisticated naïveté is not a failure of iconicity, but an assertion of the nature of art as something made, as a convention.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Bradley J Nickels. “When the Realists Killed Realism,” Abstracts of Papers Delivered in Art History Sessions, College Art Association, 1975, p. 109.

2. Jane Freilicher and Alex Katz. “A Dialogue,” Arts and Literature, 1, March, 1964, p. 206. (Inexplicably this piece is not reprinted in the only collection on Katz, Sandler and Berkson, see below.)

3. Ibid., pp. 205–206.

4. Edwin Denby, in Alex Katz, Irving Sandler and Bill Berkson, eds., New York, 1971, p. 35.

5. Friedlicher and Katz, p. 211.

6. Sandler and Berkson, p. 22.

7. Ibid., p. 23.

8. Ibid., p. 53.

9. James M. Dennis, Grant Wood: A Study in American Art and Culture, New York, 1975, p. 75

10. Ibid.

11. Sandler and Berkson, p. 16.