Alex Katz

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, May 10, 1986 | Go to article overview

Alex Katz


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Alex Katz

The philosopher Alvin Goldman once invented the following puzzle. Jones (who else?) is driving through a landscape dotted with what he has every reason to believe are barns but that in fact are large, flat pieces of plywood shaped and painted to look like barns. There is one real barn among them, and as he passes it Jones believes he is passing a barn, as indeed he is. He had the same belief as he passed the barn facsimiles, and he will have the same belief again as he passes facsimiles to come. On this occasion the belief is true, but would we say that Jones knows that he is passing a barn, since his basis for so believing is the same as it would have been had the belief been false?

I felt as if I were wandering through Goldman's epistemological farmland on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum, much of which is occupied (until June 15) by Alex Katz's cutouts: free-standing flat effigies of members of Katz's family and various friends from the art world: Sanford Schwartz, Rudy Burckhardt, Frank O'Hara. To be sure, it was not the hallucinatory experience visitors would sustain at a show of Duane Hanson's vivid, lifelike figures, got up to look like visitors to the Whitney. Seeing a crowd of Hanson's figures standing before less mischievous paintings and sculptures, one might believe one was not alone in the gallery. Would one know one was not alone when in fact one was not alone? Katz's figures are not in the least intended to fool the eye. They are, in the first instance, unmistakably painted. And they are, secondly, not life-size. In fact they stand to their living models in much the same ratio as our mirror images stand to ourselves --namely, as readers of Gombrich know and as anyone can verify by measuring his or her image in the bathroom mirror, half-size. It is well known that the cutouts came from paintings that did not work out for Katz; he simply detached the image from the background and gave it an identity of its own. The relationship of an image on the surface of the painting to its model may be very like the relationship between one's mirror image and oneself, and that may account for the slightly disconcerting feeling one gets from the cutouts, which seem oddly shrunken. It would be quite disconcerting to see a space filled with mirror images were it possible to liberate them from mirrors and stand them on their own. It would be almost surreal, like seeing someone unpack a box of shadows and spread them around the room. The cutout is insistently in image, and its flatness underscores the fact that it is not to be taken for something else.

The cutout is Alex Katz's most distinctive contribution to contemporary art. The cutouts are not paper dolls for sophisticates, though they stand in fashionable corners of the art world, where the Katz cutout has the cachet once carried by the instantly recognizable Calder mobile (which was also not a toy for sophisticates). The cutout so resembles the figure in a painting by Katz that one could will the problem of determining whether a given painting was of a woman or of a cutout of a woman, for the figures in the paintings have a curious flatness. The answer, I think, is that Katz is engaged in making images and that it is a mistake to look at a painting as anything other than a flat surface with some as yet unliberated images taking up part of that surface. The images have to look like something; they would not be images if they did not. But an image is the kind of entity that exhausts its essence by being pure surface. The cutouts are like the two-dimensional beings of a fictional Flatland, who live their lives in Euclidean planes. They enable us to realize that the paintings, too, are meant to be understood as surfaces. "My theory,' Katz stated in a recent interview with Grace Glueck, "is if you get the surfaces right, you get everything else right.' My theory is that whatever else there is in Katz's work is to be defined in terms of surface.

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