Wednesday, 19 September 2007



(First published 4th January 2007)

The work of Alex Katz has benefited from its proximity to Pop Art, stylistically, socially. It does not quite belong, but teases the definition, hints at finer affinities. As such it avoids the eventual boredom with the wider style, continues to invite mild interest, perhaps surprising reinterpretation. Katz is still shown widely, this post prompted by current shows in Maine, New York, Boca Raton, Florida, and Germany, an upcoming one in Ireland.

Katz emerged in the late 50s; already focussed upon portraits and leisure activities in a rural retreat, technique favouring loose, flattened drawing, fields of rich, brushy colour, ultimately derived from Matisse (Kathy (1960). The big move comes around 1962-3 when full length figures are virtually abandoned for the bust or close-up, while maintaining large scale of work, tightening outlines, restraining brushwork, introducing gentle, strictly defined tone or modelling (Passing 1962). What happened? Probably the example of Lichtenstein and Rosenquist (Warhol did not show in NY until 1964) the first, adopting comic strip frames for compositions, with their distinctive cropping, the second, the large smooth simplifications of billboard illustration.

Katz was evidently impressed with the way such painting could use common depiction, particularly from mass publication (the term ‘Pop’ Art is in some ways misleading) to elicit a new detached attitude. Yet Katz does not quite adopt the standards of comic strip or advertising illustration. He sharpens edges, flattens colours and tones, favours the horizontal format – hints at story boards, mass printing and scale constraints, but the drawing arrives at something closer to children’s’ storybook illustration, a Hanna Barbera cartoon perhaps, or the artier, classier end of magazine illustration (Ives Field 2 1964). Pop Art might have spread in this direction and included Katz but did not. More of its painters pursued aspects of photography. So Katz’s paintings are not quite about such a slender category, although sheer scale goes some way toward displaying it. But also because subjects continue to be portraits of friends, cosy social gatherings and rural settings – not quite the stuff of commercial print illustration – so works never quite acquire a true ‘Pop’ tone.

The large scale of works also gives the quirky drawing a more measured, arch detachment. On a smaller scale, these traits might amount to merely a comfortable version of Ben Shahn or Honore Sharrer. The drawing often skews anatomy or foreshortening, the alignment of eyes, proportion of head to torso, yet remains scrupulous about hairstyles and fashions (Lita 1964), fabric designs (Pas de Deux 1983) and eye glasses (Ted Berrigan 1967). Katz is a master of eye glasses, clear and dark. Floral studies often converge upon textile design (Blue Flag 3 1966). All reinforce a subtle commercial priority, while not quite displaying an obvious print trait. So the style teeters on Pop Art, often feels like a more genteel advertising or vulgar painting for it. For the style cuts both ways, can make painting ironic and sardonic about depiction, but only as painting is stripped of much else, subject matter likewise.

On one hand Katz belongs with Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, Nell Blaine and the like, as a modest painter of New England leisure and contemplation, on the other he is drawn to the challenge and sophistication of New York and his times. And for a while Katz’s style remains a compromise, not quite Pop Art, but straining for a similar deadpan restraint. However for a later generation, the difference between painting and mass printing – the one-off versus the much duplicated work – is no longer needed and ‘cool’ resides elsewhere. Attention has returned to something like iconography and the discernment of genres. For artists such as Brian Calvin, say, John Currin or Lisa Yuskavage, amongst others, painting points these out, tests or undermines them. Quirks or mannerisms of drawing or colour only serve to distil subject matter or iconography through painting, confirm a wider genre.

In this light Katz’s work undergoes a surprising reversal. Where the drawing and colour were never quite common enough to summon mass print standards and Pop cool, they now highlight a subject matter common enough elsewhere. Works become the cool and passive parodies of holiday snaps and home movies, bland and empty socialising pictured large, the abstract convolutions of modern dance, a telling metaphor. So too the endless portraits of his ageless wife take on a certain facetious economy – but this perhaps the secret to a lasting marriage! The lightly loaded brushstrokes and dilatory daubs dispensed upon trees or brooks (Ada’s Garden 2006) now no more than the phlegmatic concessions of a confirmed New Yorker, confronted with the very idea of nature. Where once rural and sentimental allegiances never quite allowed Katz to be cool enough; they now stand mocked by as much, allow him to be maybe too cool for comfort.

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