New York

Alex Katz

Marlborough | Midtown

Donald Kuspit has already noted the “doppelgängers” in the recent work of Alex Katz, seeing them as “a way of suggesting a tentative opposition where there seems only unified image.” The opposition may be “tentative” because, finally, Katz believes, strangely for such a secularist, in an almost mystical oneness. There are not only twins in Katz’ paintings; all his characters look like siblings, members of the family Stonewaller. This and their famous flattened-out quality make it clear that Katz is rejecting what Robbe-Grillet calls “the myth of depth.” Art, he says, is all surface. (Why else are there ten hats and at least two babushkas in this latest cache of canvases? As the only distinguishing marks on his mannequins, they undermine all his subjects’ claims to real individuality.) This seems a modest enough realm, mere appearance, to stake out, almost a shyness on Katz’ part, so diffident and restrained are his adjustments.

Were it not for the “ahem!” of its title, The Red Band would be taken for diptychal views of the same sitter instead of what it is: two women, separated by the pole of an umbrella, identically outfitted save for the fact that the red band of one woman’s hat is subtly striped in black and white while the red band of her companion’s is not. But why are grown women dressed alike? Luisa, Dana and Joan (their lips respectively closed, parted, and open, their hair long, chin-length and piled-up) tilt into the center of their space in similar necklines, their sole impertinence a silly boater at the end of two floppy wide-brimmed chapeaux.

Is this bashfulness, or the indifference of Joyce’s God, paring his fingernails above and behind his creation? Katz’ tinkering can have wide-ranging effects, can do powerful things, in particular attest to the indivisibility of the universe. It can subvert sexual distinctions: give a boy and girl equally short hair and equally long lashes and an astringent androgyny cuts through the saccharine romance of Our Eyes Have Met. Time itself can be suspended—the four seasons are represented by Joan, Ronnie, Jennifer and Anni: wintry Joan in a fur hat, autumnal Anni in fedora and the fall colors of orange and brown with just a hint of tweed, spring Ronnie and summer Jennifer in appropriate straw. Eternally young, they are really each a Primavera; the realities of winter, of aging and death, can be doffed or put on like caps.

And when/in Night—William Dunas Dance Co. and The Red Dance, this most static and flattest of realists attempts the depiction of motion through space, it’s like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object—something’s gotta give. What gives is motion. The serial presentation of the fronts, backs, and sides of Katz’ dancers seems almost a refutation of Picasso’s simultaneity. Movement cannot be depicted graphically, Katz seems to argue, just as, according to Zeno of Elea, it cannot be proven logically. His paradox of the arrow offers a variation on the syllogism that, since there are an infinite number of points along any line from A to B, and since an arrow traveling from A to B must pass through all those points, that arrow must travel infinitely and will never reach its destination. Indeed, Katz is something of an Eleatic himself because, like those fifth- and sixth-century B.C. philosophers, he ultimately believes that multiplicity, change, and motion are monistic and illusory.

For Katz, then, style is not mere appurtenance but the analogue of an inner compulsion. Critics who approach him as if he were a formalist whose one-dimensionality were simple fealty to the modernist fiat of flatness miss the obsessive incorrigibility of Katz’ style. His manner of rendering is not an historical imperative but a psychic fixture. It’s like a physiognomical fact, say a nose—after a period of development, it’s yours for life. Not much you can do about it, except make the best of it, set it off to good advantage, flatter it—as all those fashion magazines used to advise. And then there is the ne plus ultra of making your ugly duckling feature a sort of sexy fetish, a trademark—flaunt it. If Alex Katz’ awkward style has come to seem lovely, it’s because he’s done a little of all of this. If he can’t have beauty, he’ll have elegance and presence. So these works are as big as they can get, their inhabitants soigné, and the very etiolation of Katz’ style guarantees that there will be no body too fat, no head too kinky. Like fasciated plant stems, his people are enlarged and flattened, but plant stems, even when aberrations, are rarely less than graceful.

Jeanne Silverthorne