Everyone wants to be loved but being hated has been a badge of honor for generations of modernist artists. If they love me I must be bad, and if they hate me I must be good which is the line composer Alban Berg took when he felt ashamed of his successes and envied his teacher Arnold Scheonberg’s failures. But who in their right mind wants to be hated? Certainly not painter Alex Katz, who was hated when he bucked the Abstract Expressionist orthodoxy when he first started showing in New York in 1954, but whose work, now, at the ripe young age of ninety, commands respect, has influenced painters like Elisabeth Peyton and David Salle and continues to provide pleasure and provocation, sometimes in equal measure.
Alex Meyerovich, who has been Katz’s San Francisco painting and print dealer for thirty plus years, offers a generous selection of Katz’s prints which prove that he’s still making unique variations on the classical painting tradition — portraits, still life (nature morte), and landscape. Nothing here looks obviously ” important / significant ” — ” I don’t do crucifixions ” he once quipped — nor is it Pop Art because he doesn’t appropriate images the way Warhol did when he used Leonardo’s Last Supper for a series of paintings/prints, has never been his game. And yet he’s fully aware of the classical tradition which he’s subsumed but never “quotes”, though his ” Purple Hat ” ( 2017 ) archival pigment, inks, may offer hints, but firm meanings never, even though It’s a portrait of his wife Ada who’s the central panel of his 78.5 x 165 inch painting ” January 3″ (1993 ) where her image confronts but doesn’t explain. Or as Katz’s late great poet friend John Ashbery, whom he painted and collaborated with, put it in ” Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror ” — “.. the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept / In suspension, unable to advance much farther / Than your look which intercepts the picture. ” Things are seen, but not necessarily known, because looking, like “meaning”, has its limits. Katz has wisely never tried to probe ” the inner lives ” of his subjects, and I don’t think that Holbein the Younger (1497/8 – 1543 ) wanted to probe the inner lives of his famous subjects, even Henry VIII (1491-1547) whom he painted in 1537, but that painting though lost, survived as a partial cartoon, and in copies, But does it reveal the king’s murderous heart — he had wives Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard beheaded — but Holbein merely put down the bald facts of the person who posed in front of him,, and we know this because other portraits catch Henry’s selfsame look. And so knowing his back story doesn’t make it a better or lesser painting. It’s just a hook which pulls us in. The visual facts are there. Everything else is outside of the frame which doesn’t diminish the pleasures of just looking at Holbein’s portrait of the Tudor, or Katz’s of his wife Ada.
There are no firm “meanings ” in Katz’s eleven archival pigment inks suite ” Smile 2 ” ( 2017 ) which paradoxically has more “color”, depth, and visual punch than the 1993 full color painting suite of the exact same female sitters which I saw at Fred Hoffman Fine Art in Santa Monica in 1993. So does color seduce and black and white put us off? Cinematographer William C. Mellor shot George Stevens’ Oscar-winning ” A Place in the Sun ” (1951), and ” The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959 ) in lustrous black and white, and Mellor shot his Oscar nominated and widely misunderstood masterpiece “The Greatest Story Ever Told ” (1965) in beautifully modulated color, and Stevens’ use of both formats convinces. Katz’s color “Smile 2 “doesn’t always convince because smiles can look forced which could be the point — think of all those times you’ve extended your hand to someone you instinctively didn’t like, but met with a smile — but look oddly “natural” here. There’s “Ada” and Italian painter Francesco Clemente’s wife “Alba” whom Katz has painted many times both alone and with her husband, and all of his subjects here are caught in head on light which doesn’t isolate,flatten,or abbreviate the features in each face which happened in Katz’s monumental portraits in his first show at New York’s Gavin Brown’s Enterprise which I wrote up for www.culturevulture.net . Katz’s choice of background color there — an umbrous black — and here makes the image recede or jump out. Light and tone are equal partners. Stillness and motion go hand in hand.
Stillness and motion drive Katz’s color silkscreen ” Purple Wind ” which is the print realization of that eponymous 126 x 96 inch 1996 painting which the artist showed at his former midtown Manhattan gallery Marlborough that year. Its composition/cropping are contained within the frame, its gestures both controlled and free with Katz’s brush sweeping across the surface as the tree, the “shallow” surfaces of the windows suggesting not quite conscious depths. And that’s something you see when you’re walking around NewYork which barely registers because it’s so — quick. Katz’s 22-color silkscreen “Departure” (2017) is just as quick but feels I hate to say it ” meditatively ” — slow– though it’s just as caught on the run as any of the other images in this quietly spectacular show at Meyerovich Gallery in San Francisco. Ada, tilted, seen from the back, “contained ” in an “off green” ground — caught nearly dead center, but eluding our grasp. Is it she or is it us in the middle of something we can’t quite say, name? Ada extracted as the central image of a say 12 or 14 foot by 4 or 4 and a half foot — painting of her in forest grass, trees there but not “there” save as vertical shafts — which I saw at Ada and Alex’s SoHo studio when I came to see and visit them November 2016. The 24-color silkscreen ” Spring Flowers ” (2017), exists but doesn’t quite “exist ” on a white ground. Quick incisive gestures indicate but don’t define, which may or may not be what everything’s about.