New York

Alex Katz

Robert Miller Gallery

The bland, unruffled look of high cool that typifies both the people Alex Katz por- Fabian Marcacclo, The Altered Genetics of trays, and the way he paints them, can be read either as a Warholian blankness and emphasis on surface, or as harboring the moodily passive ambiguities and dreamy distances of a Fairfield Porter landscape. At first glance, it might appear that Katz’s free-standing cutouts would weigh in heavily on the surface-and-blankness side of the scale. Such stage-set-like figures seem to argue for a view of personality as facade, and, formally, to work as much against the possibility of pictorial depth as against its psychological counterpart. Yet these paintings (and they are emphatically paintings, even the heads on slender, bronze, person-high bases that recall the sculptures of Alberto Giacometti) are fully imbued with light and space—how much air can hang between an eye and a nose!

It seems Katz’s first cutout happened as something of a fluke. Unable to make the background of one of his portraits integrate with the figure, he finally cropped it out completely and mounted the canvas on a wooden piece of the same shape—a very ’60s gesture of impatience and pragmatism that recalls the time Frank Stella first cut the corners off one of his paintings. There’s nothing very accidental about the cutouts any more; now they are on aluminum Katz has cut to shape before he begins painting. And yet their freshness and spontaneity belie the realization that you’re seeing the result of what must be a rather eccentric and indirect way of working. Their blunt, upfront insubstantiality can only have been meant as a master mannerist’s challenge to his own illusionistic skills. At the same time the presentation of people is strangely less formal, more engaging and open than that of Katz’s conventional wall-hung paintings on canvas, as though possessed of a certain eccentricity that could only emerge from the comparatively stiff outline of the metal form. But they’re not that stiff: from a characteristic expression caught by the silhouette, the portrait of Katz’s son Vincent is recognizable from behind, even by someone who has only seen him once. That these cutouts are painted on both sides also works against their reduction to mere facade. It’s as if some subtle trick of perspective allowed the eye to move with preternatural quickness from one side of a person to another. This form’s compare-and-contrast effects and ability to overturn expectations also allows Katz’s rather low-key humor to manifest itself, as in David and Rainer, 1991, in which David Moos turns out to be faceless, seen only from the back, no matter which side you look from.

Of course, as with anyone who turns style into an ethic, there is something cruel in Katz’s way of looking at things, just as there is something generous. Perhaps he will paint no one who is not beautiful, glamorous, or stylish—but then he will locate beauty or glamour or style in anyone he cares to paint, where perhaps no one else would have seen it. Seeing that can change your way of looking. That’s Katz’s beautiful concision at work, his ability to literally or figuratively cut out whatever doesn’t belong to his way of seeing. He makes himself see less in order that we may see more.

Barry Schwabsky