Sunday, 20 September 2009
Alex Katz is one of the great survivors of a heroic period in American art. He is also one of the great unclassifiables. At various times he has been described both as a Pop artist and as a classic American Realist, though critics admit that he does not fit comfortably into either of these categories. What most people admit, however, is that he reflects and presents aspects of American culture and American landscape in a uniquely skilful and economical way. In his hands certain aspects of American culture and of the American environment have acquired iconic status. His paintings are epigrams about America, uniquely pithy. Paradoxically, they possess this epigrammatic quality even though they exist physically on a very large scale.
Katz was born in 1927, in Brooklyn, of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, and grew up in Queens, a suburban area of New York. He describes his parents as being somewhat eccentric and notes that, though they were far from being wealthy, the family home was full of what he calls ‘Russian Expressionist” paintings, as were the houses of some of their friends. “There was a guy named Berkowitz who had these very nice I guess Russian Expressionist things out of Cezanne. There were a lot of paintings. I never liked them when I was a kid. It was after I had been painting for several years that I realized they were better than I was. When I was a kid I thought they were just crap.”
As a young man he had the classic experiences of an artist at the beginning of his career, trying to make it in New York. This included contact with the world of advertising and commercial illustration, but also contact with the intensely competitive avant-garde art world that helped to establish the cultural dominance of the city. He participated, for example, in the discussions held at The Club at 39 East 8th Street, whose membership included most of the leading Abstract Expressionists. “I was real interested in dialectics. I liked a lot listening to those guys talk, listening to dialectics. And from the point of like not being able to talk in front of more than one person, I got so that finally I got up enough nerve when I was asked to talk there. But also it hardened the thinking a great deal hanging around all those guys. There were an awful lot of bright guys. Someone would say something and someone would look at him and they'd jump on it. You know, it was like you were sloppy. And you weren't sloppy again that way. So it was a terrific ten years or so -- or twelve years actually, around there. It was just a fantastic education for me.”
Despite this, he never deviated into any version of Abstract Expressionist style. Nor was he by instinct fully a realist, differing in this from another contemporary, Philip Pearlstein, another dissident who regularly attended debates at the club.
Given this innate stubbornness, and unwillingness to compromise his own vision, it is interesting to explore where the various components of Katz’s very individual visual language may have come from. What is surprising is that some of his sources are so obvious, though they have featured little, if at all, in American discussions of his work.
One of Katz’s most conspicuous impulses is to fill the canvas with very large, but subtly simplified images, often seen in tight close up – something that emphasizes their scale. A good example here are the two double portraits Scott and John and Peter and Linda, both, painted in 1966, and thus one of the earliest works in the exhibition. Created when the Pop movement was at its height, they share certain characteristics with paintings by Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, or even with the Marilyns of Andy Warhol. Examining it more closely, however, one soon realizes that this is not a Pop picture is any usual sense of the term. What it does is to take over certain visual conventions from American billboard images, and also from the illustrations that appear in slick American glossy magazines. In his youth, Katz was successful in selling illustrations to Seventeen, which is a magazine of just this sort.
Behind these conventions in turn, lies the stylistic tradition established by the American Precisionist painters of the interwar years. Two names that immediately come to mind are those of Georgia O’Keeffe and Ralston Crawford. O’Keeffe’s drastically simplified image of Ranchos Church, New Mexico, painted in 1930-1 and now in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, has much in common with Katz’s treatment of architectural subjects. Even closer in spirit are some of Crawford’s images of American highways, such as St Petersburg to Tampa , in the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.
One paradox about these works, and about the paintings by Katz that are related to them, is that they are closely linked to photography, without being, at least in the usual sense of the adjective, photographic. Partly this lies in the way the composition is constructed, ad partly in the simplification of tones. If one wants to assess the direct impact made by photography on Katz’s work, one need look no further than the painting Façade II included in the current exhibition. The raked, cropped composition is dependent on the way the camera sees, not on the way the eye sees. Photography has in fact played a much more direct and important role in the development of American figurative painting, from the time of Thomas Eakins onwards, than it has ever enjoyed in the history of European Modernism. In Katz’s case one must extend this to take in the impact made on him by that quintessentially American popular art form, the Hollywood movie. Though he claims very insistently to be a non-narrative painter he often produces compositions that look like frames taken from a film. An example is Wedding # 2 , which seems like a direct reminiscence of the comedies Doris Day made with Rock Hudson in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Another, very different source for Katz’s work is Japanese art, and especially two of its most typical forms of expression, lacquer work and screen painting. Reduced in scale and translated into a different medium, the painting 5:00 p.m. , with its single tree-trunk bisecting a rectangular field, could easily be the cover of a writing box designed by the 17th century Japanese painter and lacquer master Ogata Korin. Similarly, a monochrome painting of Poplars  insistently recalls a famous pair of screens depicting pine trees by Hasegawa Tohaku, another leading Japanese artist from the same period as Korin.
Katz is, of course, very far from being the first leading western artist to be influenced by Japanese pictorial conventions. Some of the most important, apart from Van Gogh, were Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard at the start of their careers. One of the most obvious sources for Katz’s paintings with human figures is the four-panel screen Promenade des Nourrices, Frise de Fiacres created by Bonnard at the beginning of his career in 1895. One only has to compare this to Katz’s Grey Coat  to see how strong the resemblance is.
The link to these two French artists, poets of a certain kind of haut bourgeois domesticity, is important in more than a merely stylistic sense. American critics, though struggling, as I have already noted, to provide convincing parallels for Katz’s art, have often noted its hedonism. The late Thomas Hess noted that Katz depicts “everyday leisure life – parties, picnics, pets – as if it were a bucolic age of gold where everybody is youthful and it is always time for tea.” More recently, Joe Fyfe, reviewing a Katz exhibition on the web-site Artcritical com, had this to say: “He’s in a line with the 18th century’s François Boucher and the 19th century’s Claude Renoir, artists who are authoritative painters within a world view that they established early in their careers. Theirs is a distinctive, sensual world that deftly apotheosizes what is considered ‘gracious living’ by the dominant class of the period.”
This is rather crudely put. Boucher and Renoir, the two comparisons Fyfe chooses, are far adrift in terms of style, but the statement does nevertheless contain a core of truth. In painting after painting, Katz conjures up a version of the American dream. The sense that this is so has in fact caused a degree of unease in certain commentators. Discussing the exhibition ‘Alex Katz: The Sixties’ on Artnet.com, Donald Kuspit remarked: “Katz’s figures present one face to the world…but have another face which they wouldn’t recognize in any mirror. Looked at more closely, they seem like puppets performing in a little theater of social absurdity. It’s a subliminally anti-social sociality, full of artificial good cheer.” Looking at a middle period Katz painting, such as February 5:30 p.m. , one can see things that might inspire such a reaction.
In fact, Katz supplies a view of certain aspects of America that is more familiar to us from media other than painting. On the East Coast of the United States, and especially in its richer enclaves, there is a vision of American life largely inspired by upper-class British precedents, but totally un-British in feeling. In commercial terms, this is the vision promoted by the two great fashion houses Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. One of the things often noted by commentators on Katz’s work is his instinct for casually fashionable clothes. The recent portraits Yi  and Michele  are as elegant, in their own pared down way, as any plutocratic likeness by John Singer Sargent. One can see how carefully these effects are calculated by looking first at the finished triple portrait of The Jacobs Children , and then at the three preliminary studies for it reproduced in this catalogue, one can see how refined his process is. At first sight the poses seem identical in all four versions, but in reality a steady process of refinement takes place. Look, for example, at the right arm of the central figure, placed across the shoulder of his younger sibling. In the finished version just a little more of the sleeve appears, next to the hand and wrist. This slightly enlarged patch of blue helps to balance the composition.
As in most of Katz’s portraits the figures in The Jacobs Children are presented against a plain background. This seems to spring from his early experience as a theater designer, which led in turn to his making cut out figures, which are not unlike the painted ‘dummy boards’ made in England in the 18th century. Katz realized that the figure without is expected background conveys an eerie sense of otherness, which may be the quality in his work that disturbed Donald Kuspit.
His work in the theater, and in particular his connection with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, commemorated here by a painting that is the earliest work included, also helped to endow him with a flawless sense of visual rhythm – in painting this is the equivalent of possessing perfect pitch in music.
For me the fellow artist Katz most insistently summons up is not one of those whom I have already mentioned. It is Fairfield Porter [1907-1975], who has a good claim to be called the American Bonnard. Both share a gift for representing certain aspects of the American notion of the good life in concise poetic form. However, there is an important difference between them. Not only was Porter a generation older than Katz – he was Harvard-educated and came from a wealthy, settled background. Interviewed for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Porter was generous enough to cite the much younger Katz as one of his influences. Yet there is an important difference – Porter, born into a family long settled in the United States, was a quintessential insider. The way of life he depicted was his by inheritance. This is not the case with Katz, the child of Jewish immigrant parents. Other artists with the same background – Mark Rothko for instance – followed a different path, exploring their own sense of anguish and estrangement. Anguish is not Katz’s theme. He gazes at, America - part real, part invented – and creates an Arcadia, sure enough, but one from which he remains smilingly detached. This detachment, expressed with his innate sense of visual rightness, gives his work its very special flavor.
(Cataloue essay for an exhibition)
 Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Interview conducted by Paul Cumings on October 20, 1969. Full text available on the Internet.
 Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Interview conducted by Paul Cumings on June 6, 1968. Full text available on the Internet.
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