Alex Katz: Drawings
The Brooklyn Rail
October 1, 2009
Matisse, when asked to talk about his paintings, would often quote Cézanne’s phrase, “I want to secure a likeness,” referring to his desire to create a correlative to his emotions. Here lies the contradiction of Matisse’s life as an artist: despite the apparent ebullience of most of his work, he always sought to empty out his emotions, so that the painting might attain a perfect visual purity of coherence, and unity of form and content.
While perfection is the purported endpoint driving an artist’s ambition (as was fatally destructive in the case of Frénhofer, the doomed visionary painter in Balzac’s philosophical novel, The Unfinished Masterpiece), visual coherence can sometimes be found in some works that may fail to move us, and at other times, a work that lacks coherence may command our attention for its power of invention. As for the unity of form and content, we often think of form as the means of expressing one’s ideas about content, which is simply the subject matter. But in actuality the two are indivisible, even if they are subjected to separate analyses; what is being expressed in this oneness of form and content is in fact the conflicted meanings of the work itself.
During the 1960s, the meaning of the terms “painting” and “picture” were feverishly debated. It was as if “painting” referred to the traditional definition, while “picture” was associated with “art-making.” A good example would be Thomas Hess’s advocacy of de Kooning versus Clement Greenberg’s support of Pollock, which more or less led to the charge that de Kooning was a better painter but Pollock was a better artist. And while most artists were busy arguing the differences, Alex Katz went on with his usual business: drawing energy from the lively scene of his time, yet staying true to his initial vision. (This vision—based on the perils and rewards of painting from direct observation—came to the artist during his Skowhegan experience between 1949 and 1950.)
The painter Rackstraw Downes, who studied with Katz at Yale’s graduate school in the early 60s, has often said that Katz had always insisted on the practical aspects of making a painting rather than a picture. Which brings to mind how drawing can be structured to act as a framework for painting. By reducing the obligatory details, especially the background, in favor of speed of execution on a large-scale format (which he gleaned from Abstract Expressionist painting), and by maintaining simplicity of form (distilled by the artist for the sake of observational necessity long before the emergence of minimalism), Katz was able to bring abstraction and observation, simplicity and speed into his singular pictorial language. As Carter Ratcliff once pointed out, Katz’s drawings (which the painter has always thought of as finished works) should be seen as paintings in “black and white.” This is to say that the moment of total identification between the artist and his subject is materialized with such clarity that the process of looking and drawing becomes simultaneously unified: avoiding a preconceived image while revealing the unobtrusive quality of the lines that quickly spread across the sheet with an unfailing radiance.
Similar to the exquisite graphite drawings Katz has made over the past three decades, this group of 26 charcoal portraits, dating from 2006 to 2009, demonstrates his delicate and sure sense of touch. With the exceptions of his own face and those of his wife Ada, his son Vincent, and his long-time friend Irving Sandler, the rest are examples of how certain conditions are carried out according to his varying and subtle aims.
In the three drawings—“Kym,” “Phoebe,” and “Jessica”—one recognizes dramatic cropping, a major characteristic of his painting, of the face from the partial forehead to the bottom of the chin, resting on a platform of horizontal lines and evoking a monumental still-life object sitting on a table top. But one also notes the control of various yet simply applied pressures that produce a shimmering range of tonalities. Contrary to the conventional depiction of light falling on a three-dimensional form, in “Phoebe” and “Jessica,” where the light source comes from the left, the whole left side of their faces and their hair should be flooded with light and set into contrast with darkness on the right, but Katz, in his practical response to the flatness of the picture plane, reverses the order of light and dark distributions. In other words, the left section of the women’s hair is drawn with more pressure, applying the side of the charcoal stick (yet with minimal modeling), resulting in that side appearing darker than the right side. As a result, the balance between light-and-dark versus dark-and-light, as well as the monumentality of the image, is equally conceived.
This practical sensibility of course includes the painter’s responses to different types of paper textures. Most are drawn on rough-surfaced paper, which appeals to Katz’s confidence; whereas in the more smoothly-surfaced paper used in “Oona 1, 2, and 3,” he allows himself to look at his model through the eyes of a child. Perhaps it’s partly due to the fuller image of a standing figure (rather than just faces) that forces the painter to maximize information through the same minimal use of charcoal lines within the same given spatial proscenium. In doing so, he allows for a certain awkwardness and naïveté to emerge, which seems to reveal Katz’s willingness to break free from his earned skill as a draftsman. It’s as if what he has always insisted upon—the importance of the optical and appearance of things over feeling—has in fact, at least in these three drawings, been transported into a kind of paradise where everything can be seen and touched for the first time.
This exhibition of Katz’s charcoal drawings is a testament to a lifetime of training and discipline, as well as a concession to some deep inner impulses that he seems only partly in control of. Visual purity in great works of art is rarely fully realized by means of preconceived strategies. Rather, it undergoes the contingencies of prolonged effort. Matthew Arnold, in reviewing Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, believed the novel’s narrative was poorly constructed, and that its defects prevented it from being a work of art. He went on to say that Anna Karenina is not art, but life itself. Katz, in his own terms, paints things, not as he conceives them, but as he perceives them. To observe: a humbling experience in which life is inseparable from art, and vice versa.
- Phong Bui