"Something Hot Done in a Cool Way": Alex Katz, King of American Style
Cohen, David, New Statesman (1996)
The American painter Alex Katz has a theory that artists have three years to be "up-to-date". It's his variant on Warhol's 15 minutes. Picasso's "moment", for example, was 1910-13, until Gris and Leger made him look old-fashioned. But Matisse, in a rare exception to this harsh law of hipness, "hit a double -- once when he was a kid and once when he was about 70". As for Katz himself, "I had a real big bounce in the late fifties into the sixties, in terms of the styling" but thereafter sees himself as an artist against the grain.
It is true that in the official narrative of the avant-garde Katz's subtle and quirky language of figuration soon made him look old-fashioned. He has never had the kind of consideration meted out to his near-contemporaries Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. But now he seems to be enjoying a second bounce after all, for suddenly he is phenomenally hot property on both sides of the Atlantic, among young artists and savvy collectors.
Charles Saatchi -- a weather-vane of the moment -- has bought into Katz in a big way, acquiring more than two dozen large canvases, mostly recent but a few dating back 20 years into the career of this 70-year-old artist. Saatchi, fast on the trail of his "Sensation" show at the Royal Academy, has captured the attention of the press by staging the largest ever survey of the American master in this country. The show, which opened this week at his north London museum, is accompanied by a blockbuster catalogue of more than 200 pages.
Katz's first "big bounce" occurred, art historically, in the late 1950s, in a space between abstract expressionism -- the heroic, romantic-existentialist, splashy all-over abstraction of Pollock and De Kooning -- and the contrastingly cool, knowing, reductive and cerebral styles that followed by way of reaction, most notoriously Pop Art.
Katz was "up to the minute" when he seemed to have absorbed the lessons of the ab-ex generation -- big, colour-saturated canvases, stunning immediacy -- while also hinting at the American infatuation with the vernacular.
Katz is a king of cool. "Something hot done in a cool way" is one of his catch-phrases. It is revealing that his talk is of "styling" rather than "form"; it comes as no surprise that his formative mentors were Stan Getz and Miles Davis. Elegance and lightness are always celebrated in Katz, even where the pervading mood is "blue".
There are those who draw a blank when they see Katz's pictures. There is no getting away from their billboard look. He even collaborated with sign painters in a set of temporary murals for Times Square in 1977.
The poet Bill Berkson once described a Katz self-portrait as a "shirt ad translated into the gravity of a Coptic funerary portrait". The point is that Katz fuses the pop idiom with the great tradition in an enriching way hardly ever achieved by the more hard-core Pop artists who came after him. He doesn't drown in the low forms he dips into. The cool Katz is temperamentally a long way from the cold Warhol.
The young turks who lionise Katz don't seem to have alienated his older, more conservative audience. He manages to appeal both to those of a classic modernist sensibility and to the "cutting edge".
The former can admire his handling of big areas of colour, his subtle delineation of form, his way of fusing the concerns of abstract painting with the conventions of realism. The latter can marvel at how he pushes nonchalance to the limit, at his ability to function expressively within the constraints of such obvious artifice, to create poetry without slipping out of his own supreme stylisation. …