Frank O’Hara, poet-friend of Alex Katz, wrote a poem called “having a coke with you”, in which he talks about how a recent beloved is better than all the paintings he has ever seen. “And the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint/you suddenly wonder why anyone in ever did them,” which bears resemblance to a comment made in a 1956 essay of his on Alex Katz: “Katz’s “break-through” in 1959 was toward enlargement of image, a move away from personal characteristics in the handling of paint, in order to emphasize the abstractness of the subject and the inherent values it possessed, and which he released.” But for now let’s focus on the question, rather than Katz’s answer: this issue of faces vs. paint was a big issue in both Britain and America in the 50s and 60s. After the Roger Fry and Clive Bell started off the Formalist line of thinking, which was picked up by Patrick Heron in England and, sadly (for the English) more enduringly with Clement Greenberg, painting was split into combinations of colour, form and line, which created a great problem for portraiture and landscape. Which was: if a painting should be a harmonious combination of free colour, form and line, how do you paint a good portrait or landscape where, by definition, the form colour and line was bound up by the shape and colour of the human face, or this or that hillside? I.e. how do you balance the portrait show having faces in it while also being having the Formalist necessity of being “just paint”.
This is Alex Katz’ continued fight. ‘Katz’s distinctive minimal aesthetic, developed in New York in the 1950s before the emergence of Pop Art and as a reaction to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism’, as the Timothy Taylor gallery explain, has here ‘been refined to a point of poetic harmony’. This may be so, I’ll come to that, however there is something that Katz does not seem to have reckoned with: I, like a few other people I both know and don’t know, was born in 1989, which creates a further problem in that Katz has been taken up by not only David Hockney and Julian Opie, but also countless commercial illustrators and fabric designers. This is the curse of being too iconic without the advantage of a Warhol-style iconic status- that the proliferation of your style, with or without you, is part of the “thing”. Katz’s huge canvases, here and elsewhere, are resolutely by a painter of life grappling with the problem of portrait vs. paint- they need the epic status they strive for and, from a certain viewpoint, still get; but seeing this show in 2012 is a whole other issue.
By way of disclosure: I do like Katz, I do like Frank O’Hara, and I do like this era and question in painting. So I will have to write two reviews, necessarily positive-leaning and negative-leaning: one from an Art Historical perspective, and one (this is a review after all) of how it strikes a contemporary.
1.: The problem of “Hills and Faces” was the title of a Patrick Heron essay that still has that name. Heron struggled with the same question, and his answer and breakthrough was a series that were later called his “Garden Paintings”. Heron’s answer was basically to squint at the flowerbeds of a garden in the Cornish house he had recently bought. In doing this, Heron managed to delete the “form” of flowers, their shape, and make canvases that were all-over coloured stripes that retained the colour of Azaleas, Rhododendrons etc.. Katz takes the opposite path. In paintings like Irises (2011) and the ‘White Roses’ series (2012), he retains the approximate form of flowers, but removes their context. From the bunches he buys from New York street vendors, he deletes entirely this context and sometimes more. The “bunches” aspect is wholly simplified, the flowers are spread out, and the background washed with a beautiful pale blue. In particular you notice the stems of the flowers are deleted, which makes the leaves float free as painterly, painted shapes.
This is perfectly logical: the mission in certain crowds used to be that if you deleted the body you’d be left with the Soul- why wouldn’t you be left with the form if you deleted the context? If you look at anything close by, then draw a line around it, and put it in a white void, you are left with nothing but the form of it. But Katz adds to this technique with painterly, expressive brushwork that is not apparent in reproductions or even from far away.
Katz has said that he is ‘trying to make a formalism that’s alive’. The paint vs. faces alleged dichotomy is dealt with in terms of distance from these huge (they are big) canvasses. “You can’t make use of an illusion and watch it”, says a badly quoted Gombrich, and Katz seems to be using this idea most masterfully in ‘Gavin” (2012). The bearded figure “Gavin” appears in two poses on the same canvas (as do all the figure paintings here)- one a ¾ length version, the other a close-up, both bigger to way-bigger than life against a block colour background. From a distance the precise brushstrokes converge into a kind of archetypal approximation of the human being in question, purged of wrinkles or shadows and laid out in ultra-simplified form. But on walking closer we see that this person is actually a composite of different colour areas, with their own brushworkings and deft touches. Gavin’s kempt-yet-tousled catalogue model hair is picked out expertly and dexterously by (as you see when up close) a dab of white on half-dry oil and a single precise flick.
Katz shines in his scale, his unpretentious restrained ability to handle a paintbrush, and in his composition of a painting like “Ada” (2012), who’s ¾ length version is actually almost a reduction to pure shape (her back is turned, so you just get her long grey hair and long black coat which are a bit like just a pair of long brushstrokes), and where her close-up turns from tonal portrait painting to sections of pure colour as you move close to it, coupled with the much-larger-than-life scale which is an abstraction in itself, like the movie close-up is an abstraction from both the wider scene and the complete human figure. Watching the illusion of a person on a canvas is turned, in a Katz signature way, into seeing the simple colour-and-brushstroke blocks of the painter. (The same thing happens with any portrait but the Old Masters try to play this down, which is why Tintoretto is occasionally cited as an unwitting predecessor). Katz provides an elegantly simple solution to his problem,
2.: however, is this a concern for us now, given the years that have followed the outlining of this problem and all that has happened (Art Historically and otherwise) in them? Katz is distinctly anti-abstract expressionist, distinctly pre-Pop (certainly pre-Warhol), but both seem to have conspired to make him seem permanently pre- something and anti- something, rather than being the static event to which other things are relative. Katz is pre-Warhol; Warhol isn’t post-Katz.
Part of the problem is a lack of imagination in we the public: if painters like Pollock are revolutionary, against/in tune with “tradition” (in that Modernist doublethinkish way), and Katz is against their dominance, then Katz must be orthodox because he is counter-counter, which in common thought is a synonym for pro- , even though it isn’t. So Katz is stuck in a form of orthodoxy, and no one appreciates orthodoxy. Yet a bigger trap has fallen in Katz’s way, significantly the injection of continental philosophy into painting which, perhaps, pure abstract painting left the door open for. Katz has noted of these new works that he ‘leave[s] out a lot of the description… You’re dealing with stuff that’s not descriptive; basically, a lot of it is just instinctive.’
This, to a generation that expects art to explain itself to us, seems very odd and, although intimidating isn’t quite the right word, certainly leaves questions that Katz does not answer or imagine. Is this subverting anything?; where’s the ironic take? ‘If I had to make a career out of ideas, I don’t think that I could do anything very well. To me, ideas are subject matter and not that important…style is important. Style and appearance. You have to have some conceptual energy, otherwise it is really dull, but basically it is just the way it appears,’ he said to Francesco Clemente, the trans-avanguardista, in a dialogue where Katz speaks frankly and knowledgably opposite Clemente’s tricksy philosophical aphorisms and sharp but unenlightening turns of phrase. Warhol and Katz both insist on surface, but Katz much more eloquently and unpretentiously. His choice to not to be an ironic painter, although a brave and honest one, seems hasty considering Warhol’s later use of (saying nothing ever, letting people endow him with) irony, and considering also the absolute power irony has now as an aesthetic and philosophical device, coupled with self-reference.
The dual power of irony and questioning what an artwork is/can be has come to predominate. Neo-Figurative painters nearly revived the formalist question that Katz explores, but got lost when they thought of cameras, and instead decided to see what paint could do to present, distort, and then do both simultaneously, to the human body. But the idea of a form-in-paint disappeared behind politics or, in the case of hyper-realism, the camera lens itself.
So Katz is not bothered about irony, is painterly, formalist, concerned with representation and his medium, interested in archetypes and schema but only in terms of what he say see- he is not a transcendentalist. If we add all this to the fact that his style (forms on a “void”), and content (stylised flowers) have been ripped off by ad-men, commercial illustrators, plus people designing loading screens for video games (the 2-angle figure paintings remind me of the loading screens for a Grand Theft Auto game- perhaps number 3), and exposed to us much more often and quickly than Katz’s work has, it lessens the impact on Katz’s work. These large paintings insist on being paintings, not “images”- they revel in being unique and monumental, which is the opposite now of what they look like. His insistence on a formal pictorial quality has dated him in ways that Pollock or de Kooning have escaped (though in a way they have escaped because those two are acknowledged masters in a trajectory we recognise as being “The Path of Fine Art”). Katz risks looking like Walter Sickert to their Picasso/Matisse- labouring over a balance at a time when the need for that balance was being ripped up.
From this retrospect, Katz is at his best at full zoom- where flowers are 50/50 flowers/brushstrokes (or clumps of brushstrokes), and you are right next to the heads. Work like ‘Irises’ (2011) and ‘Late Summer Flowers’ (2011) improve on looking and specifically looking at the paint as paint, but the two people I was with, both 80s babies, were immediately bored by the work- or more accurately felt like they had seen it before. This is true, but they hadn’t seen it in the right order. His work is what you might call “decorative”, which is not a dirty word, it’s not, it’s not; but it is the slur of a way of looking that cannot help but think politically, or have been asked and conditioned to consider the question that art maybe might have to have some function beyond paint (I’m not saying this is a post-60s question, but I am saying it is again at the fore). Katz is there on his painterly surfaces, in his touch and grace with the brush, wondering whether the portrait show has faces or paint. Art Historically, Katz is secure I think. He puts up a wonderful solution to a question that is now out of fashion, and one I hope returns.
***- 3 stars Words by Jack Castle © Artlyst 2012
Alex Katz, Timothy Taylor Gallery, 5th Sept- 5th Oct 2012