"David and John" 1977
“Muna,” 1990 (left), and “Francesco,” 1992 (right)
Black and Brown Blouse

Alex Katz: Early and Late

at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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A career retrospective of any artist, especially a ninety-five year old living American one, presents a variety of “issues “, and not just chronological ones. And when that artist is Alex Katz, who’s one of the most famous, various, influential, and perplexing painters of our time, with almost eighty years of work under his belt, these and other issues couldn’t help but obtrude, or should I say intrude? Is he, as some have said, just our homegrown version of that peerless ” painter of modern life “, the very French and very cosmopolitan Edouard Manet (1832-1888), or is he a painter who has absorbed the great traditions of American, European, Asian, and Egyptian art into his own while “just being himself”?

His Guggenheim debut proved that he has internalized all of these divergent practices into his own personal style. And that style is very New York because it’s direct, though a New Yorker’s directness works as a kind of cover for a New Yorker’s essential need for privacy. You want to be seen as worldly, which Katz most certainly is, but If you’re completely “transparent ” you have no skin in the game because art has always been about the game of appearances which is of course the game that everyone, and not just New Yorkers, are playing in real life. Katz nailed this sense of directness and privacy in his breakthrough painting ” Passing ” (1962-3 ) here where he’s seen properly suited with tie and hat, while looking defiantly back at the viewer — sensual, contained, the remnants of his five-o’ clock shadow visible, but unexaggerated — his image imprisoned in an almost perfect square. It knocked me out when I first saw it at the Modern www.moma.org in midtown Manhattan, though its power was somewhat diminished here by the Gugenheim’s darker lighting scheme. And I hate to say it but the glass at the top of the rotunda looked a tad dirty, even on a bright Saturday morning — February 18th 2023 to be exact  — when I was there.

Someone also seems to have done a tacky ready to go wrap job on Katz’s 1972 masterwork “Blue Umbrella 2″ ” which was flush with the window at the Guggenheim’s entrance on 5th Ave. If you don’t like Katz’s work — fine — or if the institution which loaned it wants it back pronto  — fine — but the Guggenheim shouldn’t make Katz’s painting look bad three days before it leaves its premises because any paying customer — even at a “hallowed” art museum with apparently big pockets like this one — deserves to see what they’ve paid for presented in the best possible way. And to think that this same “Blue Umbrella 2 ” floored me when I saw it in a suitably scaled room in the Jewish Museum’s www.thejewishmuseum.org superb and superbly presented 2006-2007 “Alex Katz Paints Ada” show, which happened scant blocks away from the Guggenheim on 5th Ave, and which I wrote up for www.culturevulture.net.

But it’s the work that matters,and the 154 pieces in this massive yet superbly laid out show served as a wonderful introduction for those who’ve never heard of Katz’s work, and as a more than satisfying way to encounter it again if you’ve lived with it, and written about it, for many years, as I have. His retrospective also gave the lie to the idea that Katz is a Pop artist, or a figurative painter who rebelled against Abstract Expressionism simply out of spite, or that he’s just a “society painter” who painted his subjects as he climbed the social ladder. But he never saw himself as the next Ab Ex Pollock or a latter day Sargent. Instead he was and remains a rather traditional artist working in the centuries’ old artistic triumvirate of — portrait, still life, and landscape — who1 has bent these received traditions to his own ends, which in his case means — no narrative, and no content. And if you’ve thrown these two babies out with the bathwater other things have to come into play, which for Katz means style, and recording things as they appear in the immediate present because nothing ever stands still. And let’s not forget that trying to capture a moment before it’s history is much harder for a painter than a photographer because the painter has to catch things on the wing while the photographer has just about everything at his or her disposal — meaning lighting paraphernalia, or anything else that can help him or her manipulate, or even manufacture the final product. It also distances the actor — the artist — from the reactor — the spectator — who misses the actual immediate live experience that a master painter like Katz provides.

Many of his early pieces here had an almost arte povera simplicity — meaning using commonplace materials like colored paper, cut and placed as in a collage,and making these into  “complete” paintings, with planes of color standing in for sky, sand, or hills with no detail or view, taking precedence.The 1954 small painting “Apple Trees” here was Katz’s lyric version of Pollock’s all-over style; and his use of positive and negative space had the Oriental calm which his New York School poet friend Frank O’Hara ( 1926-1966), found in his work. His first portraits of his wife Ada, whom he married in 1958, were almost disarmingly “simple”, her image positioned against purposely flat and neutral backgrounds where we see her standing alone or in repeated versions of herself, as in the 1959 “Ada, Ada ” where she’s seemingly changeless but always changing, Katz subsequently blew up the relatively modest scale of these early paintings of her to almost CinemaScope size which reminds me of what Elizabeth Taylor said to Richard Burton when she wanted him to stop acting “theatrical” when he played Mark Antony to her Cleopatra. “You don’t have to do anything. You’re forty feet tall.”

All of Katz’s portraits of Ada in the show held one’s attention without being that big — his monumental 103 x 132 inch portrait of her “December ” wouldn’t arrive till 1979. My absolute favorite here or anywhere else has to be his extraordinarily moving 1976 oil “Black and Brown Blouse”, which was on loan from the www.metmuseum.org across the street. Another beautiful and elusive portrait of her was his startling and startlingly perfect 1963 “Upside Down Ada ” — her face seen full on from above, thinking thoughts she alone can know. Indeed the ambiguity at play in his many images of Ada tend to function as symbols which his audience can invent and/or interpret because that’s how everyone sees / perceives, and/or calculates the personal value or lack thereof of what they see / perceive. But who would ever have thought that Ada’s stillness in “Upside Down Ada” could have such motion and that that motion could have so much stillness,and that her privacy could somehow remain intact?

Which brings us to the question of identity  because we never really ” know ” who the sitter in a portrait is even if we recognize their names because it’s just an image, and the “real” or “true” self is almost always hidden —  you don’t have to have been in therapy to come to terms with this fact —  and that goes for Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII, Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn — I remember an afternoon visit to New York’s Modern where, after seeing some Warhols, another visitor said — “whatever Andy does she’s still Marilyn ”  — or El Greco’s portrait of The Grand Inquisitor, even after being subjected to centuries of scholarly analysis. But to say that “Rembrandt paints the soul ! ” as a great lit teacher of mine told my class when I was doing my junior year abroad in Rome, is preposterous because we’re always inventing what we see even as we see it, and so the game of appearances never ends because our perception, which is of course expanded or contracted by our taste, never stops. So what are we to make of Katz’s numerous portraits of his New York artist friends here — alone, or functioning as couples? Are these artists better than those of us who aren’t artists, or are they “human all too human”, as Nietzsche’s pregnant phrase would have it ? Like Katz’s 1972 portrait of the poet, dancer, and world’s best ever writer on dance Edwin Denby (1903-1983 ) ” Denby ” who seemed to jump out of it when John Cheim showed it to me at Robert Miller on East 57th Street ? Is this particular Denby — Katz painted him frequently — surprised, alarmed, or merely in your face ? And there he was again in Katz’s aluminum cutout double portrait ” Rudy and Edwin ” which pictures him and the seminal yet still largely unknown photographer-filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt ( 1914-1998 ) with whom he shared a long romantic relationship-friendship  — caught looking past each other as they sit on barely anchored adjoining chairs, “together” yet suspended in their own private worlds, because their relationship, like anyone’s, could be history in the blink of an eye.

An equally striking double portrait here was Katz’s 1966 oil “Scott and John “in which the sculptor Scott Burton ( who was born in 1929, and passed from AIDS in 1982 ), and his lover of ten years — painter John Button ( 1929-1982 ) — the idea of gay husbands had yet to be invented — are seen in profile like almost identical Doppelgangers looking towards a long future together. Caught here in Katz’s eternal present tense which also reminded me of what Rouben Mamoulian said to Garbo when she asked him what she should do in the last shot of his 1933 film “Queen Christina “, and he replied “Nothing. The audience will fill it in.” Audiences do this all the time, and it doesn’t matter if they’re looking at Old Masters, or Alice Neel.

Another formal yet revealing double portrait was Katz’s 1976 oil ” David and John” whose ostensible subject is gallerist and writer David Kermani (1947-), and his late justly celebrated poet husband John Ashbery ( 1927-2017) caught in the living room of their apartment in New York’s Chelsea district, in probable afternoon light, the two meticulously rendered “historical” men functioning like two Fayum mummy portrait heads staring straight at the audience, but now embodied, and seen almost full figure. Or — as Ashbery put it in his great long poem ” Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror ” (1972 ) — re: the painting of the same name by Francesco Parmigianino — “The glass chose to reflect only what he saw / Which was enough for his purpose : his image / Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle . / The time of day or the density of the light / Adhering to the face…”  which chimes with Katz’s take on Kermani and Ashbery’s appearance here: the “what” seen, the “why”  unknown. Or — as my late composer-critic friend Virgil Thomson ( 1896-1989) once said to me: “You can’t know.” And it’s the dance between  “knowing ” and “not knowing ” which makes Katz’s images go. Some may seem obvious, like Katz’s 1969 oil ” Ada with Mirror” — is she meditating on the passage of time as she looks at her face up close ? — or are we asked to imagine what she may be thinking, or feeling? What anything means is of course always up for grabs, and I suppose you could call it the postmodernist’s dilemma, though ” the Katz paradox ” could be a better, or at least a more usable description. and If everything is constantly shifting, we have to be in continuous catch up mode because the speed of now is much faster than all of us combined.

But the game of appearances keeps going on.. Even still things seem to move. Like the rain in Katz’s 1989 oil “Rain ” with its wee house across the road. Or the still yet encroaching tangle of branches in his monumental 2018 “Twilight 2 ” which occupied a wall at the Guggenheim.  The epic and the intimate, The impersonal and the personal. The simple and the complex conjoined in perfect dissonant harmony.

END  18.ii — 1. v.23  — New York – San Francisco 


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