Alex Katz (b. 1927) is a senior figure, in all senses of that term, in the American art world, but perhaps not quite such a big deal here in London as some of this compatriots and contemporaries. If you are Jasper Johns (b. 1930) you get the Courtauld Gallery, side by side with major Impressionists and Old Masters. If you are Chuck Close (b. 1940), you are cosily at home in White Cube.
The Katz show now at the Serpentine is splendidly hung, and comes complete with a nicely designed hardcover catalogue. Katz is too posh to be commemorated in a mere paperback. Though his canvases are usually huge, they have a laconic feeling to them – something that that makes them seem like the visual equivalent of a certain kind of educated American voice, crisp, no nonsense, slightly flat in tone when compared to British upper-class equivalents.
Flatness, and the sophisticated exploitation of flatness as an idea, are in fact important hallmarks of Katz’s characteristic style. He is unabashedly figurative, but what you see never pretends to be life in the round. Sometimes this works very well, and sometimes – for me at least – it doesn’t. Where it doesn’t work is in the paintings that deal with the human figure. These, always images of women, are of two kinds – portrait heads, presented as huge cinematic close-ups, the sort of thing you’d see at your local movie-theatre, on a screen even bigger than these canvases; and full length, plus one half-length, images of young women. The full-lengths are in each case repeated several times over, across the breadth of a huge canvas.
The problem with the full-lengths is quite simply the drawing. The figures aren’t well articulated. They seem flabby, too primitive to convince.
The big portrait heads suffer from a slightly different problem. The tradition they belong to is populist, mythologising – not just that of the big cinematic close-up, but that of the billboards lining some major highway: what one might define as ‘drive-by art’. All to easily, it starts to feel vacuous. You can’t look at these paintings, or not with any pleasure, either too often or too long. The big portraits don’t define character. They obliterate it.
There remain the landscapes and townscapes, which in fact form the bulk of the exhibition. They have an interesting play between figuration and abstraction. In a painting such as Black Brook 18, which consists basically of a horizontal dark area, almost black though with tinges of ochre, bounded top and bottom by two light green areas, and with light green oval spots floating seemingly at random over the dark area, the eye at first reads the composition as completely abstract, and only gradually, with the help of the title, sorts out what the painting actually represents: a flow of dark water, between two grassy banks.
The simplification in the painting is reminiscent of what you get in Matisse’s late cut-outs, but in some respects subtler. This and other landscapes of the same type justify the general title given to the show, Quick Light. They are genuinely poetic works. Not surprisingly, Katz’s biography indicates that he has spent much of his time consorting with poets, where the connection between art and poetry was, in New York during the 1950s, 60s and 70’s, much closer than it was during the same epoch here in Britain. The poet Frank O’Hara was in fact the very first to write about Katz – a review of a show held in New York, as long ago as 1954.