New York

Alex Katz

Peter Blum/PaceWildenstein/Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Does a painting by Alex Katz have an inner life? Silly question, you say: Of course it does. Any image by a bona fide modern artist has an inner life, and Katz’s credentials on that score are impeccable. The Brooklyn-born, seventy-four-year-old painter studied at places whose names are virtually synonymous with turpentine and canvas (Cooper Union, Skowhegan). Even the move to the flat, cool manner that became his signature proved his modernist chops: In the late ’50s, when Abstract Expressionism was the house style of serious, progressive American painting, Katz went bravely against the grain, as any good modernist should. He’s more or less stuck to his guns, albeit with the requisite expansion of scale and subject matter (into landscapes, both rural and urban), for forty-plus years. Several generations of young painters have gone to school on his informal-but-knowing canvases. Katz, at least in the New York art world, is both an artist’s artist and a universally admired presence, right up there with fellow figurative painters Philip Pearlstein and Chuck Close. No great surprise, then, that this fall saw a veritable Alex Katz Fest in New York, with a show of huge new paintings at Pace, two surveys of small paintings at the Whitney and its Philip Morris branch, and a retrospective of woodcuts and linocuts at the Peter Blum gallery.

So what of the fact that the print The Green Cap at Blum has just as much zing, if not more, than the painting of the near-identical image, produced a year earlier (1984), at the Whitney? More importantly, why do those two works outshine by at least a factor of ten any of the gargantuan new paintings at Pace? It could be age—which is not to say the simple accrual of years by the human agent who’s made these pictures (and a helluva lot more!), but rather the unfortunate combination of stiffness, overreach, and complacency that can infect artists who’ve been famous for a long time. (Frank Stella and James Rosenquist are two prominent sufferers, while the great counter-example is Richard Serra.)

Ada’s Garden, 2000, in the Pace show—at ten by twenty feet, too big for even Katz’s talent for deliberately vacuous enlargement—is a kind of isocephalic summing-up of the artist’s career: a row of lookalike figures (essentially the same person with different clothes and haircuts, like the characters in the comic strip Rex Morgan, M.D.) at one of those cocktail gatherings where everybody talks about the “Dining In” section of the New York Times. It wants both to appeal to Katz’s traditional clientele (folks much like the ones in the painting, they figure that if a real artist wants to paint their kind in action, their lives must mean more than a balmy-evening drink) and to be a tour de force—getting away with being a two-hundred-square-foot figurative picture that’s 80 percent undifferentiated English racing green. (The irony is a couple of the small character studies, such as the glowing Ena, 2000, have much more feeling, almost as if they were the final products and the big picture the study.) An even larger work, Linden 2, 2000, is an over-the-top example of Katz’s landscape mode, which has degenerated over the years into a kind of trick picture: On a flat, dark ground (this time the color of an army truck), a few deft brushstrokes nudge the viewer to a perceptual closure so the whole thing clicks—in this case, as tree leaves catching the light. (Think of a Pollock suddenly revealing itself as a painting of yarn spilled all over the floor.) Katz uses the same device at the Whitney, only there the prize in the Cracker Jacks is a row of illuminated urban windows at night.

Seen unsentimentally, Katz has substantial problems as a painter. He wants to be a real “shapey” artist, but he won’t go down the Milton Avery road of extreme composition; he wants to conjure the ambience of an East Coast gemütlichkeit, but he can’t lay on the atmospheric paint like, say, Fairfield Porter could. His color is lazy: The flesh tones in the Pace paintings all look like they came out of the same vat. And he can’t draw a convincing articulated figure, even allowing for the deliberate off-handedness of his style.

The real trouble, though, is that Katz is essentially an image-maker who wants to be considered a painter-painter. Image-makers (and there have been great ones, such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and any number of premodern realists) treat paint as pure means to an imagistic end. (That’s why some of Katz’s prints are more satisfying than his paintings. Many of the woodcuts in the Blum retrospective of this under-known parallel oeuvre are as bright as Katz’s small paintings without being precious, and as aggressive as his new big ones without being bombastic.) Painter-painters, on the other hand, care disproportionately about how the image is built up from underneath. Cézanne is the modernist grandaddy here, with such artists as Joan Mitchell and Euan Uglow (to spread the designation around a little) as part of the pack. Generally speaking, anything-goes image-makers blow away integrity-hobbled painters in the kind of quick-perception, reproduction-oriented bazaar that the art world has recently (OK, not all that recently) become. Perhaps Katz has simply succumbed to the wider audience that loves his image-making more than his now-residual painterliness. Whatever, I left my tour of the shows with an odd idea: that if Al Gore had won the election, Katz might have been the ideal official portraitist. Of course, Gore would have had to lose the beard before sitting—it would have been too strong a sign of inner life.

Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum.