Alex Katz Subway Drawings
Timothy Taylor 16×34 | April 27 - June 30, 2017
If Alex Katz hadn’t so deftly invented himself, New York would have had to. Born in the city in 1927, he belongs to a remarkably self-creative generation, which has included such singular individuals as Frank O’Hara and Edwin Denby, whose urbane voices and visions became inextricably identified with the realigning echelons of post-war American upward mobility. One can imagine, for instance, a classic Katz painting of some shimmering, late-summer garden or apartment party as an analogous setting for a Cheever or Updike sketch, psychologizing partygoers’ affectations in blithely glancing, yet often momentous dialogue.1 But Katz has also been fairly honest, one might even say empirically so, in sticking with subjects that reflect actual day to day interactions with his immediate family, in tangent with what is now popularly branded the “creatives” class. The painter’s often monumental choice of scale for such imagery, as in his 1977 mural of 23 women’s heads above Times Square, fused the instantaneous reportage of a social scientist’s critical eye with a timeless, classical array of clashing, angular forms— delineating stolid facial tectonics in counterpoint with flickering emotional registers. His characteristic style of muted, almost air-brushed, fields and slashing staccato brushstrokes combine with incredibly sophisticated, often closely-valued, color schemes to serenely concretize the piquant slippage of “perfect moments” in urbane New York social scenes.
“Subway Drawings” gives one a glimpse into the grubby pre-history of Katz’s more polished mature style; a welcome opportunity given the fact that the artist destroyed much of his formative work. While commuting to Cooper Union from his family home in Queens, the artist filled multiple notebooks with quick sketches, in either pencil or ink, of his quotidian encounters with subway riders and assorted pedestrians. The quality of line in these sketches fluctuates between the decisive authority of Ingres and the granular, graphic stutter of Ben Shahn. The noted illustrator-artist Robert Gwathmey was one of Katz’s mentors at Cooper Union, and his influence can be perceived in both the artist’s choice of social subject and its shorthand linear capture. It is interesting to speculate on just how much the mood of late 1940’s New York helped to track the young Katz’s ontological journey, then, and his subsequent arrival at a highly stylized form of figurative commentary. One can see in these delicately inscribed soliloquies historical detail like the plumed hats or fedoras that men and women of the time sported. While temporally fixing the sketches to some extent, there is also a recognition of the same kind of relaxed postures in strap-hanger resignation that persists in the subway to this day. Perhaps most significantly, Katz’s commute became an opportunity for the young artist to explore an already encapsulated social microcosm, a formal limit he would continue to expand upon in his later aesthetic development. For Katz, it seems, the playing fields of Soho and Park Avenue were won in the trenches of the Interborough Rapid Transit.
Examining details of individual images here and there, one can forensically project the artist’s now well-known stylistic modus operandi. There are a number of faces, for instance, in profile—as in Two Men in Hats Reading and Profile of Woman in Glasses (bothcirca 1940s)—which prefigure a formal tack the artist would later take in a number of his frieze-like compositions of laterally-stacked and overlapping faces in approximate profile. This penchant for extrapolating abstract form from observational drawing can also be seen in a drawing such as Man with Newspaper on the Subway (circa 1940s) in which the titular newspaper slashes across the picture plane to compress the crowded action of the subway riders into an orchestration of angular symmetries. Likewise, some of the artist’s now-familiar reductions of facial features can be discerned, particularly in the eyes and mouths of his subjects. In Man with Hat and Newspaper (circa 1940s) the subject’s visage seems already to have been adapted to Katz’s mature shorthand of “dot” eyes and subtly expressive lips which carry almost the entire weight of his protagonists’ emotional baggage. The artist’s predilection toward abstract composition is demonstrated in one early sketch that includes a superimposed pencil diagram of intersecting axes, intentionally organizing the action of his fellow subway riders into a study for a painting (the only one on view here) entitled Three Figures On a Subway (circa 1948). Katz’s subdued yet radiant color work is also evident in the painting, making for an interesting comparison to the somewhat similar palettes of contemporary works by Milton Avery or Jacob Lawrence. The artist was somehow capable of assimilating such influences while steadfastly hewing his own path, one that would eventually brush past Avery’s light fields and even Fairfield Porter’s slab-like passages of light and form to establish his own clearing of painterly simplicity. Katz, in his typically straightforward tone, has remarked, “It takes a long time to get to some simple solutions that look like they just took a minute”2 What becomes evident from taking in the “Subway Drawings” is how much the artist’s seemingly effortless and mature style was initially founded by a doggedly-determined, yet passionate, involvement with the plainly observed social subject.
- In this passage from her essay “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion famously memorialized such New York City party scenarios- “New faces,” he said finally, “don’t tell me about new faces…the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised “new faces” there had been fifteen people in the room and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, NY, 1968 p 228.
- From Invented Symbols: An Art Autobiography by Alex Katz, ed. Vincent Katz, published by Colby College, Maine,Edizioni Charta, Milano, 2012 p. 133