GAVIN BROWN’S ENTERPRISE (GRAND STREET)
MAY 5 – JUNE 19, 2016
Two walls, both hung with drawings, face each other. One, shorter in length, was custom-built for this exhibition. They are painted a pale green, not a found green but one mixed by the artist and then matched to a Pantone color in the paint store and applied to the walls by gallery assistants. At the far end of the gallery, a row of windows open onto buildings across the street and a tree in the full green leaf of early summer.
The sharp contrast of the two greens together with the line of white pillars and otherwise white walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery, and the charcoal drawings in elegant white frames, are as pleasurable, cool, and precise a mise-en-scène as could be imagined—so unpretentious and clear. This recalls the colors of even opacity that often surround and isolate figures in Katz’s large oil paintings. This specific way of working with a context is something extraordinary (and unique among painters; it is an innovation that dates from the 1960s and has only gotten better over the decades).
What to do with the figure was a subject of considerable discussion during the 1950s in New York. De Kooning’s solution was to establish an environment of paint around it that was as intensely wrought as the figure itself. Katz, however, created a void of evenly painted color that was the figure’s only context—a context without floors and walls or an indicated source of light. The figure was realistically rendered, Katz’s economy with paint standing in stark contrast to de Kooning’s almost frenzied density.
Many of the drawings here either place a figure against the white of the paper with very little or no reference to background, or consist of closely cropped depictions of faces. Take, for example, the six drawings together on the one wall built for the exhibition, all Vivien (2015), of a woman standing in different positions—arms folded, arms behind her, hands together, or one hand in a pocket—wearing sunglasses and a hat. Each gesture in the sequence is expressive of a mood or state of mind. In looking from one drawing to the next, not only are we aware that the figure is also in a slightly varied position on the sheet, but our reading of the posture and attitude animates an understanding of how people are rarely static to our vision. It reinforces how significant are the subtleties of a person’s posture and movement—here, forward and back, the gaze always directly at us. This is all conveyed by an unpretentious, observational way of drawing that, in stylistic terms, could only be Alex Katz’s.
Facing this group of works are thirteen drawings aligned at their bottom edge. There are full figures, faces, double portraits, the gaze directly toward us, or turned away to the right or left. One face, Ada (2015) is horizontal, as if asleep. Other faces appear in partial view at the extreme left or right of the sheet. The impression is that—like Franz Kline did—Katz draws constantly, and so (as with Kline) the drawings are not so much studies but complete renderings of a moment in passing, which may, of course, find themselves as a stage toward, or a meditation on a painting—potential or finished. I mention Kline because the directness of his work—its spontaneity and performativity—shares something with Katz’s works, however different the formal results.
Katz found his singular way as a painter during the heyday of New York mid-century abstraction, which informed the schematic clarity of his drawing and painting format. In 1966 Frank O’Hara remarked that Katz “poses a problem in evaluation for American critics [. . .] an enviable position which one hopes he is able to maintain in a situation where virtually everything else has been gobbled up, if not assimilated or understood.” The drawings seen here, apart from the paintings, remind us that Katz remains a very singular artist.