Alex Katz has created a unique style of revivification, injecting energy into otherwise static images. With the breath of his brushstrokes, his flat colors expand, and he makes of them rounded, living paintings. One is amazed by his flirtation with extremes, by his willingness to risk banality in order to tailor it to reality: one tiny strand of hair separates beauty from parody, simplicity from excessive complexity, improvisation from formality, and above all cool from cold.

Alex Katz, “Anna,” 2010. Oil on linen. 80 × 84”. Courtesy of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.

What is it in Katz’s alchemy that keeps him so focused on sustaining his own style? As one is well advised to do when grappling with questions of style, I turn to Picasso and Matisse. While Picasso’s paintings feed off the flux and instability in his life, Matisse’s are borne of a consistency that belies his own eventful life. Picasso, in spite of his drastic changes from one style to another—at least according to a superficial reading of his images’ physiognomies—retains a detectable constancy of speed, as evidenced by the gestural variance of his brushstrokes, all of which stem from his wrist. In Matisse’s case, he gradually liberated the movement of his wrist into the length of his arm—this is especially apparent in his later works. Katz has a greater affinity with the Frenchman than he does with the Spaniard: the continuity of Matisse’s style is of a kind with Katz’s, while Picasso’s divagations are united only by the curiosity behind their effects. In other words, while Katz was weathering through the Abstract Expressionists’ triumphant decades of the 1940s and ’50s, as well as with the emergence of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual Art that followed, he allowed his paintings to adapt the monumental scale, the reductive use of images, and the immediacy of his painting process—all central to these movements, but sometimes exclusively so—to coexist simultaneously. And this is where his great, gestural contribution lies: to make large, complex paintings look effortless and deceptively easy.

Alex Katz, “Flowers 2,” 2010. Oil on linen. 96 × 120”. Courtesy of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise.

Conceptually, one is challenged by Katz’s definition of “style”; it is one that utilizes the fashion of a given time without pandering to the sentiments of that age. Katz’s ferocity and his storied accuracy dictate how an image, whether a portrait or a landscape, is painted. Like a dancer who is also a choreographer, Katz composes each specific shape, gesture, and brushstroke to coalesce with his specially sequenced movements; his concern is with the coherence of motion and form.

His recent paintings are particularly indicative of this ability. The neck in “Ulla,” with its jarring differences between the thin line that defines the right chin and the bold diagonal brushstroke that suggests the sternodeidomastoid muscle, amplifies a sense of volume. The same bold, dark lines under the right chin in “Anna” serve a different function: to enclose her face tenderly while intensifying the monumentality of her white hair. But Katz’s lightness of touch lends his figurative accuracy an elusive gauze. (The exhibit’s lone landscape painting is a tour de force example of this synthesis between description and abstraction.)

A painter who has stayed true to his “hedgehog” vision, Katz has miraculously maintained, if not increased, his arsenal of deceptively simple images, the subtle distinctions of which may easily be lost upon a viewer unaware that there is vigor and animation to keep up with. I am reminded of the late New York Times critic John Russell’s description of Katz, as recounted in his wife Rosamond Bernier’s recent memoir Some of My Lives: “John found Alex a champion verbalizer: ‘His abrupt and often astonishing phrases come at us one by one, fast and unexpected, the way the little black ball comes at us in squash court. If we don’t catch them on the bounce, they are gone.’ ”


Phong Bui