New York

Alex Katz

It used to be, back in the ’50s, that the body language of Alex Katz’s painted figures bespoke an expectation of loss. Very still, their stillness in fact exaggerated by their half-buried, faltering outlines, their arms would often hang limply at their sides, hands empty, redundant, as in Frank O’Hara, 1959–60, and Paul Taylor, 1959. The Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, 1959, shows the artist seated, one hand thrust between his legs, in the classic “barrier signal” pose described by Desmond Morris as metaphorically protective of the genitals.

By the early ’60s the loss has occurred. Hands and arms are often deleted, and in exchange, a fully blown social life has been provided for the figure. This is signaled by a more detailed background scene and a new particularity about clothes, a possible jump from working-class or classless outfits to upper-middle-class ones, from Paul Taylor’s longjohns to that uniform of sophistication, The Black Dress, 1960. (Even in suits, Katz’s men in the earlier work seem to wear them as workers on Irish road crews once did—as an idea of dignity) Whereas his wife Ada’s white dress in a 1958 portrait is simple and nondescript, the black one worn in 1960 is simple and chic.

There seems to have been an exchange, a somatic, anxious completeness turned in for “civilization,” a well-worn Freudian insight but one that seems in Katz’s work quite unconsciously arrived at. One believes this because of the way the shearing-off is either disguised or reads ambiguously as a visual obstruction. The Cocktail Party, 1965, is paradigmatic. In this crowd scene profiles become jagged weapons, attacking both fellow actors and the air itself. Cropping is expressive of the side of people we cannot see. For instance, the carrot-haired woman here keeps her body in profile but her head completely turned away, leaving only the back of her stylish “do” visible. The odd effect is that her face is missing. Because Katz rarely paints a shadow cast by one body onto another there’s no evidence of anything underneath the superimposed form. Katz’s people literally cut each other off, not just obscure the view In optical eclipse, they do not exist. One is real only by virtue of being seen, the very definition of sociability

Much has been made of the way Katz doubles, trebles, quadruples his figures, but this refraction is reserved almost exclusively for women, more specifically for Ada (the portrait of Rauschenberg is an exception). That in groups women become an ideal Woman, and that the ideal one, Ada, then virtually fills the room or canvas like a scent, is clear in paintings like Eleuthera, 1984, where subtle repetitions conflate individuals, and in the proliferation of Adas throughout Katz’s work. It is in the family portraits, however, that one meaning of Ada’s centrality becomes apparent. In Walk, 1970, Ada’s profile and Katz’s back loom large like Scylla and Charybdis, flanking a path, on which their small son walks, that leads toward a lake. In the painting’s perspective, the path ends at Ada’s lips, uniting woman and lake. Ada, as in so many works, is the landscape. A triangle of family relations is inscribed, as Ada looks in the direction of Katz, who apparently looks at his son, who looks ahead along the path that ends with Ada. Even in a painting such as Thursday Night #2, 1974, filled with young turks, very gray flannel, who symbolically encircle Katz, his small “painting” of Ada in a bathing cap holds its own at the right of the canvas, outside the crowd. Ada stays afloat both above and within the social current. This is the "other:’ by turns the individual and the organized group, treated by Katz as either an eternal and reassuring verity, or a contingent, dangerous reality.

Jeanne Silverthorne