Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s
Alex Katz, Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, 1959. Oil on canvas, 66 x 85 1/2 inches. Colby College Museum of Art. © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Purchase, NYNeuberger Museum Of Art
July 1 – October 14, 2018
The quotidian fortune of being bull’s-eyed by a bird letting loose from on high supposedly augurs good luck, a sign that the splat was a chance operation. The deeper magic, of course, is that both pedestrian and the bird exist within a universal plane of consistency that somehow purposefully unites the bird’s flight with the walker’s groundedness. This may seem an odd analogy with which to introduce the prodigious sequence of painterly operations brought into intentional coincidence by Alex Katz over his long professional lifetime, yet it does concur with his stated notion of getting at a sense of “figure-in-ground” in his work. Katz’s is a practical yet philosophical approach to painting (a cryptic, intuitive philosophy at times—what exactly does he mean by painting “from the back of his head,” for instance?) which willfully determines that a painting is both a picture and a thing simultaneously: and so his real subjects are not necessarily the people or places in his paintings but the paintings themselves. The works in this show track the artist’s quite early discovery that to make a painting with the vital immediacy of everyday life one first has to solve various empirical dilemmas raised by the goal of synthesizing virtual figuration within actual grounds—aligning that hypothetical bird with its gravitational target, as it were.
One of the earliest paintings in the show, Group Portrait 2 (1950), generally depicts what its title suggests. Apparently derived from a snapshot of the artist’s classmates from Cooper Union on a painting field trip, its ensemble of faces is blotted out in an anonymous array of under-saturated red, blue, yellow, and violet brush strokes. The subject’s bodies are a collection of hues in subtle counterpoint and reinforced with a bolster of black infill. The group is abstracted from its environment by a green and white, overall, painterly division of the bottom and top of the canvas. One clearly sees here the nascent elements of Katz’s mature works in the bold use of brushstrokes and isolating fields of color to achieve an immanent cohesion of “figure-in-ground.” Works from a following period, such as Street Scene, Balloons and Jack’s Fancy Fruit and Vegetables (both from 1951 – 52) maintain this basic formal translation of subjects into their environs. It’s an approach still seemingly influenced by examples of older artists such as Milton Avery, and perhaps even Maurice Prendergast, in their jigsaw and mosaic distribution of precise color proportions to make up figurative scenes. What is poignantly revealed here is the artist struggling to break free from the illustrative constraints of the observed subject, such constraints that he most likely intuitively knew to be the sentimental limits of the (then highly successful) figurative expressionists of his time such as Robert Gwathmey and Ben Shahn. While Avery and Prendergast belonged to an older tradition of extending their organic, almost homegrown way of image making that would eventually evolve stylistically to take on aspects of modernist tropes such as color field painting and allover composition, Gwathmey and Shahn would assimilate and yet subsume cutting-edge painterly innovations of the 1950’s into a formulaic, illustrative syntax. By the time Katz paints Goldenrod (1955), which is a Pollock-like allover evocation of a field of that pernicious weed, he has gone far beyond the grasp of any such influences. This diminutive painting (13”x20”) is vast in its implications for the artist’s future works, remarkably presaging his relatively more recent large scale and lyrical fields of flowers and landscapes such as May (1996) and Song (2003). Neither of these works are in the exhibition, but evident throughout the viewing of the show was the formal consistency of Katz’s vision over multiple decades. And his field of vision has remained remarkably consistent with his subjects of form.
On Katz’s many portraits over the years of his family, friends, and artistic milieu much has been written. Typically, the subjects of beauty and glamour are touched upon in such discussions that range from periodic tastes in fashion to transcendental concepts of taste in a philosophically Kantian sense. The immediate hold with which beauty grabs our attention is echoed by its ever-aspiring cousin: glamour. Katz has cannily juggled these psychological prompts in multifarious images of “beautiful people” often in surprising combinations of boldly planar bodies, killer bone structure, breathlessly swept-back (or stylishly cropped) hair and capaciously brimmed hats sometimes offset by mirrored sunglasses. He has skillfully arranged and re-arranged such stylistic elements in order to embed within his pictures focal points that direct the viewer’s empathic responses to the beautiful and glamorous into specific emotional compartments made up of generalized forms.
The “look” of a Katz portrait has—long since the period represented here—taken on its own reality in pop cultural memory much like the celebrity portraits of Warhol or Alice Neel’s colloquial sitters. Yet Katz neatly welds his glamor in tight seams with a commonsense awareness of the ultimate fallibility of such fashionably fleeting forms when faced with the brutal commonness of time and its inexorable, generic, reductions. It is this tension of temporal gravitas that widens, deepens, and compels a sustained viewing of his (at first glance) facile stylishness.
In this exhibition we see the artist’s early intent at making his familiar figures plainly coincidental with their grounds, therefore less likely to seduce, as the later works do, in their variously articulated beautiful surfaces. So these figures tend to present more transparently in their mortal “framing.” Ada—his wife of sixty years and constant muse (as favored subject) over that time—figures prominently in these early portraits, striking a variety of poses ranging from staid attention to active repose. It seems as if the artist chose such a sympathetic, sentimental subject as his beloved wife to repeatedly paint almost in order to challenge himself with the overcoming of such sentiment: to condense his emotional intimacy into a graspable form by remaining unseduced by the outer surfaces of his subject. A corollary can be made here with Cézanne’s similarly objective, if considerably more dispassionate, series of portraits of Madame Cézanne, though Katz would eventually come to heartily embrace the painterly influence of the blithe Matisse rather than the broody scion of Provence. A compelling example of his early portraiture of his wife is Ada (Oval) (1959). It’s one of the larger paintings in the show and places the artist’s wife in a deep, Pompeian red tondo surrounded by a field of washy, dark raw sienna. Ada stands, deadpan-center, with hands crossed elegantly demure at her waist, in a blue coat and burnt sienna high heels. The overall impression is that of a classically serene Madonna ensconced in a surrounding mandorla, yet expressed with a yeoman-like deliberateness. The inseparability of each element of the composition (due in large part to the painter’s facility with modulating closely valued and under-saturated hues) clearly achieves the artist’s “figure-in-ground” effect, making for a linear and geometric chorus: a unified harmonic of figurative and abstract form. Ada holds forth in the painting like an un-common goddess precisely because of how Katz reconstructs her specific likeness: complemented and supported by a virtually generic, pictorial pedestal. This sophisticated, cool frisson between the canny and the uncanny that has come to characterize the artist’s figuration seems to have its inception in this work and others that are similarly constructed, such as Paul Taylor and Double portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (both 1959).
Along with the erudite excavation of the origins of Katz’s style in this well-chosen collection of early works are some nice surprises such as the series of small still-lifes and landscapes that the artist created by painting lightweight paper with watercolors. He then cut these into recognizable forms, arranging them into gemlike compositions. Untitled (Landscape) (1956) is one such collage. Measuring a mere seven by ten inches, it is a vision of a rock strewn field centered around a lone white pine, a scene most likely located in the artist’s summer home in Maine. The closely valued hues and generalized shapes in this piece work together to emit a serenity which recalls the contemplative still life arrangements of Giorgio Morandi. As Morandi had, Katz has remained ever aware of the fundamental power of the subtle limits of the quotidian gesture.
Daily life, in its ever evolving instant, remains highly resistant to any attempt to fix its quick vitality in aesthetic amber, or (and perhaps more important to the subject at hand) to transparently reveal in its ongoing sequence of moments a universal pattern that would make such moments too easy to steal away from their very necessary and vital reoccurrence. Alex Katz has been keenly aware of this, as this show beautifully lays out, from almost the beginning of his career. What makes Katz a perennially fresh painter is the skillfully cool deference with which he temporarily coaxes instantaneous moments from their destined appointments in time, surgically cutting to the quick of both immediate likeness and its long temporal shadow. The uncanny upshot of this light-footed maneuver is that he himself has become a figure coincidental with his chosen ground, inseparable, as a profoundly stolid artist, from an extensive lifetime made of animate images.