ALEX KATZ Small Paintings 1987-2013

Brooklyn Rail
November 5, 2013

Alex Katz makes highly refined graphite drawings as part of his preparation for the bravura, often enormous pictures for which he is known. These paintings are not, in the usual sense of the word, spontaneous; his esthetic sensibility is cool, refusing sentiment in favor of “high style” (his term) and impeccable finish, for which prior drawing is necessary. Throughout Katz’s oeuvre as a whole, there is a dialogue between drawing and color that calls to mind Matisse’s deliberate and perhaps more explicit exploration of their relationship. On the other hand, his small oil-on-board paintings at Peter Blum seem to bypass drawing altogether, using direct, unmediated brushwork for the swift capture of their subjects. Academic traditions of representational drawing have no part it seems, in the procedural evolution of this body of work.

Working from observation, Katz reduces the given spectrum of colors to a few, a color chord as it were, in order to capture the particular light. With these he makes painterly notations more or less at the speed of his thinking, without hesitation or second-guessing. Abbreviations of detail increase the immediacy of the image. Beyond representing whatever the subject might be—a few flowers, a field, a figure—these lyrical, one-shot responses, at once casual and decisive, are also glimpses of pictorial possibilities. Some then serve him to construct major works possessing the force and visual impact of, say, a Rothko or a Held. Whatever percentage of these sketches has a future, each is done with total confidence. 


“Wild Roses [Study A]” (2012) is a 9 by 12 inch scattering of pinks and small greenish strokes laid wet-on-wet into a warm brown ground. One flower is cropped by the top border. Two have touches of yellow at their centers. None of the four shown actually accounts for the structure of the flower, but with their casual distribution and attention to how they look at that moment, they work. “Tulips,” (2013) also 9 by 12 inches, with yellows and grays, and the 12 by 16 inch “Dogwood” (2013), share the same deceptively casual approach. They recall that solitary asparagus Manet painted in 1880.

The early pieces, “Black Brook” (1989), “Gold and Black” (1993), and “Homage to Monet 5” (2009), are familiar from the large paintings of those years; many of the more recent ones also generated major works. (Most of the nearly two dozen paintings on view were chosen from studies done over the past eight years.) The quick portrait studies—“Elise,” “Choi,” “Elizabeth,” and the chic standing figure of “Ada”—are images of elegance, confluences of Katz’s and the sitters’ decidedly contemporary styles.

One of Katz’s signal accomplishments has been to greatly simplify, you might even say to abstract, the diverse complexities given to perception. During the ’60s, his intimate collages made of flat colors were configured to catch the body language and play of light on a figure or landscape with canny economy. These works were, I believe, instrumental in developing his technique for greatly enlarged portraits, genre scenes, and landscapes, which somewhat resembled blowups of the collages’ simplified arrangements of flat color. Similarly, his more recent work makes use of the abbreviations of his quick oil studies. 

Is Katz a realist? If your notion of realism is that a realist shows societal truths as part of a political agenda—Gustave Courbet, for example—he is not. If you associate realism with the compilation of an extensive inventory of factual data from the “real world”—Rackstraw Downes or Catherine Murphy in our time—again, the answer is no. But if realism refers to a broader concept of the artist in some way making the world more available through his or her work, that is, bringing some aspect of reality to a greater level of consciousness, then Katz might be considered a realist. Although he chose early on to reject the romantic dramas ascribed to Abstract Expressionism in favor of a contemporary classicism, here we see Katz as a lyrical painter, expressing easily overlooked, evanescent pleasures.

Robert Berlind