New York

Alex Katz

Marlborough | Midtown

This is as good as it gets. Right now, no one’s paintings surpass Alex Katz’s vast, expansive landscapes (recently on view at Marlborough). Their hallmark is the vacant beauty we find in works like West 2, 1998, an urban nocturne in which a series of illuminated windows is little more than a few sequences of blunt white swipes with a wide brush over a black ground. And in November 4:30, 1997, the calligraphic bravura with which a backlit tree’s almost bare branches are evoked turns out to be just an opening act for the breathtaking sweep of color changes, from ethereal blue to sun-saturated yellow, in the sky seen through them.

The problem with noticing the coincidence of beauty and blankness in Katz’s work is that it turns any further analysis into something more like a judgment on contemporary painting as a whole, its limitations and possibilities, than an appre-ciation of the attainments and shortcomings of an individual artist—a tall order for the workaday reviewer, and not something that Katz’s work specifically invites anyway. Even the fact that his focus has shifted from the figure to landscape shows that he feels no need to explicitly depict the worldly urban culture of which his art is both representative and product. Yet the blasé attitude that was always discernible in his subjects’ blank faces, at once de-individualized and unmistakably characteristic, is still there. Katz brings to the countryside neither the native eye of someone intimate with its every detail, the inhabitant for whom woods like those in Green Dusk, 1996, may be ones “that have been loved in and wept in,” as they were for Robert Frost, nor the romantic idealization of the city newcomer who thereby betrays his essential alienness to the scene. Rather, Katz’s eye takes the measure of the landscape with the same mix of mental reserve and visual acumen with which it appraises the human figure.

Katz’s synthesis of representation and abstraction is pitched so perfectly that he’s managed to turn their irresoluble conflict—the great differend of modern art—into little more than a nuance of stylistic predilec-tion. The Impressionists may have been just as disenchanted and secular in the way they viewed their motifs, but never with the same coolness toward their own pictorial means. So what one might call the quality of blandness in Katz’s work has never before been keyed to such a degree of intensity as in some of these paintings (to those already mentioned, add Black Brook 14 and Marine 2, both 1997)—an intensity worthy of being named, without irony, the sublime of blandness. The paintings conjure a strange feeling of the world’s insubstantiality. It’s as though Katz, the least “spiritual” of painters, had arrived at Eastern wisdom through a completely opposite route: It is worldliness, not the rejection of the world, that dissolves the veil of maya, of illusion.

Seeing a selection of works on paper like that at Sikkema, far from comprehensive though extending from ’40s juvenilia to the present, is an instructive reminder that being an outstanding painter, even in conventional genres like portraiture and landscape, doesn’t require being a great draftsman in the traditional sense. Drawings are usually considered to exhibit a spontaneity difficult to reconstitute in painting, but with Katz it is just the opposite: The drawings demonstrate just how much will and calculation underlie the casual freshness of the paintings.

Barry Schwabsky