New York

Alex Katz

Marlborough | Midtown

I find Alex Katz’ painting casually appealing; the more I look at it the more seriously I am interested by it. Like Ault, Katz is primarily involved with the way light flattens and changes shapes. Katz is also involved, much more than Ault, with the way trying to paint those changes alters them even further. His precision, as real as Ault’s, seems based on awkwardness verging on the most primitive. Roger Fry wrote that Cézanne “happened to lack the comparatively common gift of illustration.” Katz is not to be compared with Cézanne but I think he does, at first, seem to lack the “gift,” and then finally succeeds in convincing us that he paints things as he sees them (and as we would see them too). At the same time, Katz’ draftsmanship is basic to the abstract nature of his work, for, as soon as we believe that he sees things a certain way, something in his figures suggests that his real interest is in having them all conform to the picture plane—forget anatomy and depicted space.

The most complicated work was Black Jacket, a large (7 1/2’ x 12’) painting of five versions of a dark-haired woman in a black blazer against a brown background. The light is strongest from the right side and so each right side of her face is lighter. This difference warps her face, flattening out her nose, making one eye lighter than the other, and giving her lips a peculiar purse. A section of her hair is also highlighted. All this is made even more visible by the repetition of the figures; the significance of the woman diminishes and she becomes a vehicle for the light in a mild subversion of the modernist idea of seriality. The repetition confuses the notion of the light source, since the figure moves back and forth and around, but the light never changes. The figures are at different points in time, not necessarily in space, and so the warp extends to the entire painting. The four similar, frontal versions of the woman are contrasted with a fifth, a full close profile at the far right, her back to the light. She adds to the confusion by suggesting that all five are, after all, in the same space. Of course, the painting is also seen as a portrait of sorts, and the light change becomes part of the woman’s facial expression. It is a strange portrait and the profile view functions here too, balancing the vulnerability of the four slightly unsettling gazes.

In other works the light is more subtle and composition more routine and casual; some casually fail and some casually succeed. In Evening a group of four men stand around a girl seated on a table so that they all have essentially the same eye levels. The figures are close, consecutive, and just a little big for the size of the canvas. In Supper, three figures seated around a dinner table are too far apart from each other and overwhelmed by the expanse of table before and blank space behind them. Katz’ figures are often most successful when they occupy the larger portion of the canvas and the forward portion of clearly defined and organized space. In Ada and Vincent in the Car the rectangle of the painting is concentric with the car window. The boy leans his elbow on the sill and beside him, back in the painting and the car, a woman sits in the driver’s seat, her hands on the steering wheel, her arm on the other window sill, past which there is nothing but green grass. Katz’ cropping is essential to his figures’ closeness and frontality and also to another aspect of the “abstractness”: their immobility, their monumental stiffness. The moments Katz depicts are casual and fleeting, but the paintings are not. The moments are locked into a stasis almost amounting to timelessness; it has to do with Katz’ flattening of form and simply with his awkward, precise figurative style. It seems to me that his figures cannot move and that they never will. Consequently August Late Afternoon is very disturbing primarily because it shows two figures full-length and in motion, although they are not in motion at all.

There were also three cutouts in the exhibition—painted figures several feet off the ground on thin steel rods. The cutout eliminates the question of the figure’s relationship to the painting size by filling it completely. Its suspension in space increases that quality of stasis and timelessness; the background and foreground become infinite, anonymous, or nonexistent. A large cutout of a man’s face (from his eyebrows to his lower lip) reveals how consistent the format is with Katz’ tendency to crop his images. In general it seems logical that Katz’ interest in the figure should lead him to sometimes concentrate on it in complete isolation. The cutouts are free of the canvas and exist in real space where they establish their own illusion.

Roberta Smith