Los Angeles

Alex Katz

Michael Kohn Gallery

These seven big oil paintings––of flat simplified faces or figures set against pale monochromatic backgrounds that evaporate quickly into nonexistence––are typical of Alex Katz’s figurative work. The inhabitants of his barless, habitatless human zoo are a select group of elegant men and women, upon whom a neutral observer––the painter, Mr. Distanced Narrator––casts his practiced, democratic gaze. Subjects glance back out of the paintings with equal neutrality. Though these obedient subjects might recognize their likenesses on canvas, they would find themselves looking fairly generic, as though their individuality had been sandpapered. Katz paints languid, well-dressed, blandly attractive but not ravishing persons. Gorgeousness would be both an extreme and a specific characteristic that could never exist within the limited, becalmed universe of these works. These are not portraits conveying identity or personality any more than billboards are aimed at one particular prospective customer. The paintings, peopled by cleanly but stiffly painted, sophisticated citizens just standing there in the off-white air, seem to deal with interchangeability, collective humanness, and distance. Katz fools around with the dichotomies of individuality and multiplicity in works such as Black Dress, 1989, where he repeats the same figure in the same clothes but in slightly varying poses six times, as though she had been cloned.

Even in this context, where humans, sometimes splitting into multiple images of themselves like amoebas, are always painted flat as paper dolls and exude unremitting tranquil absence, certain relationships change. Clothes, for instance, take on a subtle life of their own in these paintings––perhaps as bearers of some of the excess life the figures seem to shrug off. A winter coat, a pair of beach shoes, or a dress become not just garments but sidekicks, accomplices, partners to the wearer. Four of the seven pieces in the show have articles of clothing for titles–– Beach Shoes, 1987, Red Cap, 1989, Green Jacket, 1989, and The Black Dress. Lips and eyes also seem to exist as separate entities in some works, functioning as bright or dark landmarks in large pale facescapes, as in Red Cap and Ursula in White, 1988. A subtle refusal to acquiesce to completion or closure can be felt throughout this work. The paintings feel half full, half deserted. No head or figure appears uncropped. Beach Shoes presents the viewer with a close-up portrait of a pair of sandaled feet from the ankles down. Nearly full figure portraits, like Black Dress, and Lauren and Peter, 1988, end at the knees.

Slight paradoxes ruffle the viewer’s mind here. It’s hard to imagine these subjects ever speaking, yet they do project a kind of life. The works in general convey both warmth and flatness, control and openness, grace and awkwardness. Are these paintings adrift, tame and staid, or profound in their reserve? Is Katz a marvel of neutrality, or is he being evasive, or both? Nothing extreme or troubling protrudes from beneath these uniformly smoothed surfaces. Katz’s dispassion creates a whine below the threshold of hearing, a faint but stubborn undertone that at its most perceptible provides viewers with intimations of a gleam or pall.

Amy Gerstler