New York

Alex Katz

Robert Miller Gallery

Back in the ’60s, when many artists were emphasizing the tackling of formal ideas as plastic issues, one of the knottier formats was a dialectical setup between painting and sculpture, between the plane and the three-dimensional object, between the bounded authority of the wall and the open freedom of space. The artwork tended to be as reductive and abstract as the problem-solving activity that produced it. From Donald Judd’s boxes to Robert Morris draped felt, the iconography mirrored the philosophizing that motivated its forms.

In the ’80s, this line of exploration has taken a literal turn in work by artists of different generations such as George Segal and Robert Longo, artists who work with figurative images as well as with formal conceptualizing. Somewhere just below their big, ambitious statements is a more low-key discourse, a kind of diffident argument no less compelling for its deliberately modest method. Recent exhibitions of aluminum cutouts by Alex Katz and Timothy Woodman pick up this more muted tone of dialectical debate and make some quiet points with offhand skill. What their work lacks in formal provocation and in transcendental aims is offset by a human-scale, quirky mysteriousness and by the orderly pleasures of “reasonable” discussion.

Katz’s flat cutouts, like all the clear flat painting in his mature style, exhibit the good manners of moderation, a balance between formal invention and traditional content which paradoxically seems only to increase the tensions inherent in their unresolved status. Typical of Katz’s dogged stubbornness, these cutouts work changes on his painting style, itself dismissed at one time but now a potent model for painters like Eric Fischl and David Salle. I suspect that some viewers will ignore these cutouts as minor variations on a powerful topic, and at first glance that take is certainly possible. The works display the familiar Katz types—John Cheever-esque characters; white, affluent, upper-middle-class suburbanites—set in their usual placid poses of comfortable ease. But Katz’s framing of these deceptively bland figures, their isolation from landscape, and their presentation on aluminum sheets which resist the paint add a subtext of subliminal disturbance.

The portraits are divided into two kinds, which were hung in an alternating sequence around the gallery. In one group, pairs of women in swimsuits pose as if for informal snapshots; with their bathing caps, Egyptian faces, and hieratic stances, they resemble the secularized goddesses of a suburban cosmology. The works are open to the wall, but Katz slices off elbows and hips to supply straight edges wherever the aluminum image crosses a hypothetical frame. This cropping heightens the abrupt edge between the glazed surfaces and the blank gallery wall, defining the cutouts uncertain formal status as paintings/objects. It also generates an emotional tension, mimicking the photograph’s methods for creating mood; here, the undercurrent is one of sensuality.

Punctuating these pairs of women were portraits of men and women, art-world couples. Among those I recognized, the painted poses seemed to comment on the public perceptions of the relationships depicted. Francesco Clemente glances out with his haunted Van Gogh look while his reticent wife is partly hidden from the viewer. Red Grooms peers over the shoulder of his friend Elizabeth Ross. For those in the know, this name-game tease adds another psychological layer to the diffident drama, one less obtrusively underlined by the cropping than in the other portraits.

Two female nudes, both of the same woman, tucked away in a side room formed a discreet coda to the show. Here Katz finds a golden mean between Philip Pearlstein’s clinical framing and Tom Wesselmann’s provocative posing. As in the other portraits, the resonance between the subject’s sensuality and the overall calm, placid mood is a perfect objective correlative for the cutouts ambiguous formal status. As always, Katz’s technique throughout is impeccable, and one left the show with the satisfying feeling of having participated in a modulated, well-mannered debate about major issues.

John Howell