New York

Alex Katz

Marlborough | Midtown

Within the tradition of realist painting, Alex Katz stands as one of the most refined of artists. I would liken his position to that of Brice Marden in the tradition of abstract painting. Only the absolutely necessary feature of the tradition is preserved, and the elements that once were separable are collapsed into style. I often felt, while looking at Katz’s depicted interiors, that the walls were hung with Mardens (or Nolands), rather than being “blank.”

The injection of people into Katz’s paintings can often appear irrelevant to the main purpose, which is the smooth sailing of style as form and content. Rarely do the portraits reveal anything about the individual sitter. You can hear Katz whispering, “I only care about the formal qualities,” when you pass by paintings where the pictorial “problems” overshadow the general orientation of the sitter. An image of a woman sitting by a window with the “light” of night flooding in is about the painter catching a certain kind of atmospheric effect, and not about some dark-night-of-the-soul within the subject. What draws our attention to this painting is that it hasn’t got that backyard suburban brightness that pervades most of Katz’s work, and he seems to be tackling unfamiliar (although related) formal problems. The dark blues and blacks are a relief, in a way, from the optimistic sunniness. But the person portrayed still has that half-smile, languid and mysterious, that we have come to expect from Katz.

His other foray into new territory occurs in a painting of the Laura Dean Dance Company, which is suffused with a drastically artificial red-orange, an attempt to capture theatrical lighting. Again, this garish color is no reflection on the dance company, and the members don’t seem more menacing for being bathed in hellish light. The faces are passive, expressionless, but seem to be looking at something unknown to us, although they are staring into our space. The people, the situations, need not involve any empathy or commitment on Katz’s part. His color and light derive from general situations, not from states of mind or conscious expression.

Katz also fiddles around with new, oblique points of view. One might say that he introduces a consciously mannerist composition because that would be in perfect harmony with super-refinement. The twistings and perverse angles seem to indicate that Katz doesn’t study real life, but photographs. These paintings reveal their affinity to the snapshot, and point up how the strategies Katz has been using for quite a while derive from a photographic sensibility. (These paintings are close to “billboard style,” and, when billboards are hand painted, they are successful only as far as they ape the photographic.) Katz’s arbitrary croppings, distortions, flattenings and awkward, frozen gestures read as they would in a snapshot. The kind of discomfiting look that Katz gets in his portraits where the subject is looking at “us,” is the look of the posed snapshot. The people seem to respond to a machine rather than a human audience. As for the kind of photograph that “didn’t turn out the way we thought it would,” there is a Katz painting of a woman lying down with her head “near us,” the rest of her body stretched out horizontally away from us. It would be a “bad” photograph, but as a painting it is a masterly feat of foreshortening. The sitter is dissolved in a refined simplification of a complex formal arrangement.

Mysterious strangers must have an air of empty preoccupation. Katz confers such an aura upon his subjects, as if they were posing for cigarette commercials. Coupled with their billboard size, his subjects assume an unwarranted nobility. Rather than forcing intimacy, Katz forces impersonality. To paint a portrait impersonally is no longer a shocking thing—here the distance plays a part in the proper functioning of the models. Even though these are Katz’s friends and neighbors, he gives them to us as unknowable nobility, heads of his state, figurehead rulers over his territory. Royalty has never interested me.

Jeff Perrone