Alex Katz drawings at Peter Blum
September 9, 2009
As a child, Alex Katz couldn't draw as well as his brother, who was a precocious draftsman and able to capture the detailed likeness of whatever he saw. During a public lecture at Harvard, Katz compared his childhood abilities with his brother's as a way of explaining their respective career paths. While his brother became a designer, Katz said, "I became a fine artist."
Katz's fine art can be found in a show of 26 charcoal drawings currently at Peter Blum Gallery in Soho. All of the drawings are portraits in some way, and most depict women, including his wife Ada. There are portraits of art critics Irving Sandler and Robert Storr. Everyone is lean and glamorous.
Many of the drawings in the show bare a light erotic charge as Katz's charcoal softly traces shapely silhouettes of women's faces and bodies in profile. The warm paper's thick tooth grabs the charcoal and makes the black dust sometimes seem like it's hardly there, as if one breath could make Katz's touch disappear.
Katz's work has thrived in the separation between life and art. For me the story of his childhood illustrates a key idea for Katz: his drawings aren't about describing what he's seeing, but something else. They are cool, pared down, simple. Carter Ratcliff has described the drawings as "paintings in black and white." It would be more accurate to say they're Alex Katz paintings in black and white, because only Alex Katz makes paintings that are like drawings. For what seems like simple work, it gets complicated very quickly.
All of the drawings in the current show are of single figures without a background. There are no distractions, but there are also no crutches. A blog recently quoted Edouard Manet about backgrounds:
It's damn hard to make a canvas interesting with only one person. And it's not enough to get the likeness. There's also the background that has to be supple, alive, for the background lives. If that is opaque, dead, then there's nothing left.
Because Katz relies on big, simple forms described by single lines, the work is gutsy. As different as Katz is from the abstract expressionists who were dominant when he started painting, his work is action painting. It lives or dies on the naked execution of a formal idea. As Katz says in an interview with Phong Bui, "It gets crazier when you try to pull with a big brush as wide as half-a-foot and a gesture is 9 feet long. It may have started as black, but then it turns into grays, so you really have to know what the hell you’re doing."
What Manet fears is the nothing behind a subject and how to unify the canvas; what Katz embraces is that a line across paper or canvas can activate both sides of the line, regardless of subject. Sometimes the approach yields strange results, as in "Oona 2," where the way Katz describes her couture makes it seem like she's misshapen and wrapped like a mummy.
In other drawings, like "Vivien," "Sahn" and several portraits of his wife Ada, Katz softly pulls out something stronger and more interesting than any background could be. Katz knows what he wants to look at. It's a matter of attitude in drawing a line between something and nothing.
- Harry Swartz-Turfle