What would painting today look like without Alex Katz? Depending on who you ask, the answers will vary greatly, but chances are almost everyone in the New York art world has an opinion. You may not like Katz, who recently turned 95, but the fact that everyone can’t stop talking about him and his work certainly counts for something.
Katz’s fans, of which there are many, will point to his paintings’ reliable formula as a sign of his brilliance: stylish figures placed in vacant settings, where they stare out at the viewer, often with a chilly gaze that’s tough to pin down. Katz’s detractors—I must admit to being one—find his works formally audacious and conceptually vapid, ceaseless variations on a theme that has become humdrum.
His buzzy show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York did little to change my mind. It’s Katz’s second New York retrospective in three decades, and it’s a smart-looking assembly of his greatest hits and some of his lesser-known later works.
Walking up the Guggenheim’s rotunda, I found myself witnessing a stream of similar-looking paintings: sleek portraits of art-world celebrities, loving homages to his wife and frequent model Ada Del Moro, highly abstract landscapes that come into focus when seen from afar. They all started to run together after a while. This show may just be the season’s biggest disappointment.
Part of the exhibition’s problem is that the best works are located in the middle. These are the effortlessly cool paintings of the ’60s, which remain Katz’s most famous ones, and justly so.
The Red Smile (1963), one of many paintings here featuring Ada, is emblematic of this era. At nine feet wide, it’s sizable, like many of the paintings that Katz produced at this time, and it’s stylish as hell, too. Ada is shown in close-up, almost like a movie star; so cinematic is its aesthetic, you’re even tempted to say she’s gazing offscreen. But this is a painting, of course, and you’re reminded of this by its scarlet-colored background, which, in spite of the painting’s title, is even redder than Ada’s lipstick.
How, then, do we end up, nearly 50 years later, with a painting like Ada’s Back 2 (2021)? It’s another view of Ada, this time from behind, with her grey hair represented by no more than long strokes with patches of white left amid them. Simple, yes. Banal, too. It has none of the visual punch that The Red Smile does. Katz’s practice has clearly evolved over the years, just not in the way you’d hope.
That the show sputters in its latter half isn’t the fault of its curator, Katherine Brinson, who’s deftly assembled a good primer to Katz’s career.
Brinson devotes a good amount of space to Katz’s first mature works, which frequently took the form of minimalist images of people riding the subway. Done in the late ’40s and early ’50s, during and after the years when Katz was a student at Cooper Union, these early paintings and drawings are not very important works, but they do prefigure Katz’s more mature style in interesting ways.
Note how Katz depicts these scenes with just a few people, few details, and a lot of negative space. These pieces conjure a peaceful commute, not a subway car smashing through an underground passageway. Their serenity and their starkness would become a core component of his art in the years to come.
Katz appears to have tried pushing that sparseness even further with a series of collages that conjure landscapes by way of a few jagged snips of colored paper. They are duds—curious, inert images that call to mind Milton Avery’s quaint seascapes without any of dazzling color plays that make Avery’s paintings worthwhile.
But in the late ’50s, Katz arrived at an artistic breakthrough, painting people he knew against expanses of uneven white paint. These portraits are plainspoken, but gazing at them for a while reveals just how unusual they are. Look closely at the brushwork on Lois (1957), featuring the painter Lois Dodd, who Katz paints seated in a mustard-colored folded chair, one barely visible leg crossed over the other. All around are her smeary white strokes and partially visible pieces of Katz’s original sketch, a Matisse-indebted gesture that seems more radical than it may first appear.
The eyes have it in these ’50s works. Dodd’s pupils are like daggers, and that seems to tell a lot about her spiky persona. Now compare them to the soft, caring look given by the critic Irving Sandler in a 1958 painting where he wraps an arm around his wife Lucy. There’s a world of difference between these two portraits.
At the time, this shaggy figuration looked quite unlike the abstract art being upheld by members of the New York establishment, including Sandler. (Add to this the fact that his paintings are done wet on wet, meaning that he applies new layers before old ones dry—a technique that lends itself toward speed rather than precision.) And so it must have been even more shocking when, during the ’60s, Katz pushed his style even further, slickening his strokes and toughening his concepts.
He painted downright strange works in which people appeared to multiply, filling rooms with themselves. He’d tried his hand before at this, with works such as the beguiling Ada Ada (1959), featuring two images of Katz’s wife side by side, but he perfected the style with The Black Dress (1960), in which six Adas appear to pose as if for a camera. Some stand; one sits cross-legged on a chair that seems to melt into the floor, icily peering out with a faint smile. None of the Adas’ psychologies are easily legible.
Something truly odd is afoot in works like The Cocktail Party (1965), in which a group of loft party attendees seem engaged in conversation. Careful observation reveals that these people are actually talking across one another—no one is very engaged by what anyone else is saying. That’s because Katz made the work by drawing real revelers, then rearranged their images to form this deliberately flat composition.
The Cocktail Party is not the picture of bourgeois conviviality that it may first seem to be—it’s a sneaky painting that’s actually about total detachment. Everyone in it is interchangeable. Any sense of disillusionment then fades away once you get into the Guggenheim show’s second half, when sun-splashed scenes take center stage.
Suddenly, Katz’s cast of art types is transported from pallid expanses of nothing to light-filled living rooms and bayside shores. The mood is much more pleasant now. It feels as though a weight has been lifted, even though his figures are often just as stony as they were before.
Truth be told, cold Katz is better than warm Katz, which isn’t even all that warm. Round Hill (1977), featuring an assortment of bathers reclining on a sandy hill by the sea, would seem joyous were it not for the flinty gazes of its sitters. There’s a woman in the painting wearing a nice blue bathing suit, and a lithe mustachioed man beside her, too, yet there’s not a shred of sensuality in this scene at all. Lighten up a little!
Images of middle-class bonhomie like this one quickly grow tiresome, and it does not help that this quaint sensibility seems to have infiltrated Katz’s landscapes. There are a few paintings here from the late ’80s that depict New York at night by way of lit-up windows amid a field of black. It’s easy to fall for the brushwork here—there’s a certain wit in portraying this illumination via a few mere gentle white strokes and little more. It’s also worth remembering that, at this time, New York was not the hyper-gentrified city it has now become. Amid the darkness, there was the pervasive threat of violence. None of that is represented here.
Occasionally, in this later part of his career, Katz has delivered some pleasant surprises, like one work in which an image of the poet Allen Ginsberg splinters into six paintings, so that his lips hang across from a segment of his bearded mouth in one gallery. Yet for the most part, anything that once made Katz’s art feel edgy has calcified and grown stale. This is an artist resting on his laurels.
Witness the case of his recent landscapes, which are awarded the airy galleries of the Guggenheim’s uppermost level. One of them, Blue Night (2018), is mainly composed of a hulking black mass that is disturbed only by a swatch of navy blue in one corner. The canvas aspires toward transcendence, à la Caspar David Friedrich’s masterpiece, Monk by the Sea (1808/10), another landscape that enacts a contrast between dark, abstract tones. Katz’s painting has the sad consequence of feeling dashed off, even in spite of its epic proportions, at more than 14 feet wide. Friedrich would never.