New York

Alex Katz

Marlborough | Midtown

Because of its breezy subject matter, its cushy use of light, the unobtrusive quality of its facture, Alex Katz’s work has often been characterized as lacking in complexity—safe. It is breeezy, cushy, and unobtrusive, and nothing could be more difficult than what Katz accomplishes: the momentary glance seen before it is gone for good; the dazzle of color hit by light or its depth in shadow; love just this side of becoming something else altogether. For all his couples close enough to touch (Not and Louise, 1995, and Kazem and Ena, 1995) or to converse (Vincent and Vivian, 1995), Katz is enough of a realist to discern the potential for distance and withdrawal, the solitude that exists even between intimates. Although the subject and execution of his paintings can be disarmingly matter-of-fact, simple even, taking his paintings in, observing them is anything but easy. A single tree branch in the evening; snow on city buildings; a field of flowers; the meteorelogical changes and aspects of light on a given day, at a specific time (10 AM, 1994, Sunrise, 1994)—getting all this down requires steadfast attentiveness.

A definition of such attention would be accepting the world for what it is rather than for how one wishes it to be. James Schuyler, for whose first book of poems, Freely Espousing, Katz provided dust-jacket art, is Katz’s closest verbal peer to such a pursuit. Unassuming and leisurely in its intricacies, the work of both men has been too frequently dismissed as slight. Schuyler’s title might be the best description for what Katz accomplishes time and again in his work: taking up the world in all its flux, ambiguity, and slightness (the people and the clothes they wear, their hairstyles, makeup, and perfume). Reviewing Katz’s work in the ’60s, Edwin Denby pinpointed the everyday complexity of this artist’s project: “It is extremely real. Not real at all.” Which means that for every bit of realism in Katz’s work there is the equal, subtle resistance of abstraction; and as much as Katz contemplates the world in these paintings, he is also always considering its relationship to paint, the act of painting. Consider Dark Reflection, 1995. Its shadow on water is a study of invisible greens, black and gray, their motions. Just that. It casually generates thoughts about the mind encountering the world’s darkness, but it will outlast such projections.

The overwhelming dazzle of May, 1996, is, of course, “not real at all,” since May 1996 had not begun when the painting was finished and hanging. City Landscape, 1995, builds its quiet night rhythms from the slightly changing sinuous curves of trees in profile. Here and there, lights, aureoled, float like will-o’-the-wisps or paper lanterns. The calm belies the hubbub of the metropolitan and might also be taken to be “not real at all.” Such moments only a consummate city-dweller could accurately depict; too few take the time even to notice. It is perhaps Katz’s careful knowledge of the city (which Schuyler also shares) that makes him so observant of nature: flowers; animals and humans; the articulation of light around shrubs and trees or on water in Maine.

The limits of things and bodies—edges between people, between background and foreground—are also what allows them to meet. I am not sure that is very clear. I mean that what comes between things allows them to be what they are. The bravery of Katz’s project is to keep returning in paint to these commonplace concerns as if they had philosophical weight. They do. Living, life goes on with or without our consideration.

Bruce Hainley