Alex Katz

Fischbach Gallery

Alex Katz exhibits seven large paintings of flowers (tulips, lilies, daisies, etc.) and a group of figurative paintings including several vast “portrait” heads. The style of all the paintings is the familiar one of clear shapes and flat patterning—a decorative, semi-muralesque treatment that has abandoned easel scale but hesitates to claim the wall as its proper reference. One fights the conviction that almost all the paintings would have been better even larger, and painted directly on the walls.

Within the frame there is compositional drama: the cropping and the close-up compositions of the movies, or, as in Late July, the box-camera confusion of focus and depth-of-field (as well as the engaging awkwardness in the placement of the dominating sprig, as if an unseen hand to the left was “posing” the sprig, lifting it high enough to present a clear view of the lake beyond). But the frame also exerts unwanted pressures, especially as it forces the issue of the size of the figures: the heads are as vacant as those on Mount Rushmore, and lack the authority of their proportions. Lightweight lives becomes the subject. The flowers have the gravity of deportment that Katz cannot seem to give the figures, but they are perfumed with a fatal touch of turn-of-the-century symbolism. In spite of their size, they are close, and whisper of mortality and depravity, just as they did when Baudelaire first dreamed of them. The subject becomes the attempt to stay one step ahead of the cliché.

Lightweight lives and the cliché: the last painter to break through both was Matisse, but his triumphant solutions fed more inspiration to abstraction than to figurative painting. The agony of the figurative impetus is that each artist must bring the tradition back to life for himself; it is no living thing he begins with. Alex Katz appears here and there to recognize the difficulties he is engaging, but in a disconcertingly spiritless manner: one wishes he would bear down harder on what he is about.

Philip Leider