Images from Alex Katz’s show at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York
Alex Katz: Paintings
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York
Sept. 10-Oct. 8, 2011
“Iconic” is a word that should be stamped out or, at the very least, remaindered. Any word used as frequently and loosely as this one ends up meaning next to nothing. Alex Katz’s work has often been called iconic, especially his portraits of his wife, Ada, and, in our current sense of the word, it could be called that because his style is unmistakably his. But it’s also iconic in the ancient sense of the term. Icons, after all, were likenesses designed as objects of veneration. The artist’s 10 monumental portraits here—each measures 5 by 7 feet—are, in their way, objects of veneration because they catch the quick moment passing—one of many in the lives of each sitter—and immortalize it. Think the Deesis: Christ flanked by Byzantine figures in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, or the Egyptian Faiyum mummy portraits limited to head and shoulders, which, though naturalistically modeled, are somehow about the approach of death, or, at the very least, this moment which won’t last.
Katz’s potraits here have been tagged as “somber,” and that’s an apt description, though his refusal to provide narrative clues as to why these people are this way makes them enigmatic. Each has been painted with the face lighted full frontally so that nothing but the essential features of the sitter emerge from a subtly modulated blue/black background. Katz’s cropping makes them occupy their identical spaces in completely different ways, so that each has a specific, almost cinematic charge. The cropping in the 2011 “Anna,” is the most extreme, her face almost full frame, surrounded by her shiny black hair. The cropping in 2010′s “Sarah,” whose head is positioned just a bit off center but nearly full frame, has a completely different effect. Her face, framed by her straight blond hair, radiates a supreme I-can-do-anything confidence bordering on the heroic. The attenuated, almost center-stage cropping in the 2011 “Nathalie” thrust an obviously private moment—she looks extremely delicate—into the public domain, which Katz’s lighting magnifies. This pensive aspect is also present in the equally striking 2010 “Ulla,” with her handsome elongated face. That Faiyum look again.
And then there’s Ada in a 2010 painting of the same name, this time as an almost abstract oval, her face looking almost sculpted as it emerges from the surrounding dark, the push/pull of color and tone belying Katz’s frequent flat on flat tactics.
Katz has exploited multiple views of the same person in the same picture as in the 1960 “The Black Dress—Ada 6 times—or the 1986 “Darinka”—Darinka 4 times—but he does that in two separate 2011 paintings of Rica, whom he presents here in coat and tie, his face and shoulders centered squarely in the frame. You’d think he was a young stockbroker-type, like the suited men in Katz’s 1974 painting “Thursday Night No. 2,” but he’s actually the Brazilian Ricardo Kugelmas, who works as a studio assistant for the painter’s Italian painter friend Francesco Clemente. Katz catches him in 2 identical cropped poses here – one with a barely open smile, and one with a closed mouth, his shoulders up in the first, and down in the second. Eager in the first, yet reticent, definitely reticent, not eager, in the second.
Katz’s single view of the gifted young actress Sophie Holman in the 2010 “Sophie” holds her own on the wall next to Rica. Resolute, possibly hurt, surviving some nameless tragedy perhaps, vulnerable, utterly composed, with fire inside, her hair framing her strikingly beautiful face and piercing pale blue eyes.
We never know what will come out when we sit for our portrait, or what the artist will see, but we’re always vulnerable looking out, and looking in, at the same time. Katz catches this eternal tension with great sensitivity. It’s there in every great portrait from the Old Masters to the present, and his formalist tactics and acute eye capture life on the run. All of the works in this quietly spectacular show are so beautifully painted – there are several of wildflowers and a huge reflection of branches in water – that we hardly notice the artist’s hand. It’s there, of course, but also seems absent, as if Katz had stepped aside so we can just see.
©2011 Michael McDonagh