The Various Alex Katz
Naves, Mario, New Criterion
The painter Alex Katz is a curious figure in the annals of postwar American art. Throughout his fifty-year career, he's been perpetually situated to the side of the art world's mainstream, yet never so far to the side that he isn't in the thick of things. A realist who came of age during an era predominated by abstraction--Abstract Expressionism to be exact--Katz has been linked with a number of artistic tendencies, such as Color Field painting, Pop Art, and realism--both "new" and the traditional. He's found a congenial home in all of them. Yet the closest one can come to placing Katz is to note that he's a key figure in the generation of painters--it includes Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Nell Blaine, and Leland Bell--that pursued figurative art in the shadow of the New York School.
Even among this group of square pegs, however, Katz sticks out, a fact noted by the critic Sanford Schwartz in 1973. He described Katz's art as standing "a little elusively by itself" with "allegiances all over the field." The allegiances Schwartz referred to were stylistic, but the multiplicity of critical allegiances that have formed around Katz's work is equally "all over the field." Any artist whose career traverses half a century is bound to have a diversity of devotees, but Katz fans are so wide-ranging in outlook that one can't help but do a double take. Joining Schwartz in writing appreciatively of Katz's paintings is Fairfield Porter, who possessed as shrewd an eye as any. Yet the artist can also count among his admirers the indefatigably verbose art critic Donald Kuspit, the controversial historian Simon Schama, the bestselling novelist Ann Beattie, and the contemporary scene's silky arbiter of cool, Dave Hickey, who once favorably compared Katz's work to--but of course!--a Hercules movie starring Steve Reeves.
What's more than a little troubling about Katz's fans is how their heterogeneity so readily makes room for those with extra-aesthetic axes to grind. Svetlana Alpers, Professor Emerita of the History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, for instance, counts herself as a Katz devotee --or so one is likely to conclude from the essay she wrote on the occasion of a recent exhibition of his pictures. Yet the only time Alpers writes without her characteristic lukewarmness is when she talks around Katz's art, particularly when expressing her impatience with those who treasure "art as something distinctive, something which might have its own history." For Alpers art is nothing of the sort, rather, it is just "one cultural artifact among many others made at a particular time."
Similarly, Eric de Chassey, in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition "Alex Katz: Small Paintings," begins his essay by informing us that "Alex Katz is one of very few artists working today capable of creating works that can be reconciled with the world, without seeming anachronistic." Forgetting for a moment the questions one wants to ask about such a loaded sentence, one intuits that Chassey, like Alpers and Hickey, doesn't much care for--how to say it?--high art. But they do care for Katz's art quite a lot. One wonders what a self-described traditionalist like Katz makes of such enthusiasts. One also wonders if the "elusiveness" Schwartz writes of is a loyalist's way of implying that what makes Katz's art special is not so much what it is, but rather what it can absorb.
This past fall, Manhattan's various art districts offered five separate exhibitions devoted to aspects of Katz's work. If their cumulative effect isn't an indication of "Katzmania" (for the poker-faced Katz is unlikely to induce mania), it does point to his prominence in the art world. The Whitney is presenting the aforementioned "Alex Katz: Small Paintings." (1) It is a two-part exhibition, featuring pictures painted between 1950-1980 at the Whitney's Philip Morris branch and works created within the last twenty years in the lobby of the uptown museum. …