On a visit to Alex Katz’s summer studio in Maine a few years ago, one of the many topics we discussed was the uncluttered clarity of basic living. In the early days (the late 1950s) his residence there had no electricity nor running water. Mentioning my current summer situation, off-grid in Nova Scotia, his response was, “It’s such a civilized way to live.” His rejoinder, on the surface counterintuitive, was nevertheless characteristic of how Katz sees almost everything, and especially the field-stripped morphology of his painting. He appreciates the inherent lightness of unencumbered vision. His expansive body of work, of course, can alternatively impart a feeling for the electric buzz of downtown Manhattan and the crickets of Lincolnville, Maine, yet in each instance the artist creates his own ecology of people, places, and things that proceed across his canvases and graphic works in serenely civil instants.
In this recent, 416-page volume devoted to the artist’s life as seen through his portraiture, one gets the picture that Katz’s people constitute a distinct ecosystem of social relations. While the artist himself values gestural simplicity, his portraits, taken as a whole, make up quite a complex of civil manners. What is idiosyncratic about Katz’s unpacking of that society, especially in the group and couple portraits, is how he paints his subjects as abstract surfaces, a point made very clear by Carter Ratcliff in his incisive accompanying essay. In comparing Katz’s coterie to the society portraits of John Singer Sargent and Cecilia Beaux, for instance, he writes, “The comparison holds only if we ignore the glaring difference, he looks at surfaces, they try to see through them.” I’d add, however, that by painting his contemporaries in such an opaque manner, Katz actually frees up a dimension of psychological clarity: a frank appraisal of his subjects’ facial expressions and body language in a very specific psycho-social order. Katz has consistently denied any interest in the psychological dimension of his sitters, yet he does seem an incisive chronicler of interior life that is predicated on exterior social assessment. One is made aware, especially in his group portraits, of a similar kind of post-WWII aspirational jockeying for social position that the novels of John Cheever and John Updike describe, albeit sans the dramatic pathos of the falling short of such. There’s a positive breathlessness to the direct address of a Katz portrait that depends upon the immediacy of the personal encounter without dwelling on its potential social denouement. Theirs is a rather frictionless fiction, distributed laterally across the picture plane as “free” space. Katz favors an open, rather than closed, pictorial structure which informs his subjects’ social standing. In a 1973 review, Sanford Schwartz elucidates this dynamic between subject and pictorial form in the artist’s work: “The content in his painting, ironic or otherwise, is always most satisfying when it’s inseparable from the formal things he’s after.” Perceptively reading an early group portrait, The Cocktail Party (1965), Ratcliff hones in on Katz’s egalitarian projection with regards to social hierarchies: “In this milieu there is no deference, no condescension, only variations on a social virtue: the willingness to take others as seriously as one takes oneself.” How Ratcliff interweaves Katz’s personal development of a social milieu with the formal development of his painting technique and sensibility is refreshing in this new volume. In addition, he strategically inserts comparisons to Katz’s list of important art historical influences, ranging from Rembrandt to Matisse, and further extends these with his own list that includes apt comparisons of Katz’s painting to the styles and subjects of (just two examples) Diego Velázquez and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Here is an insightful excerpt related to Katz’s composing of direct yet complex figure arrangements. “[Monarchy’s] defenders argued it was the best guarantor of social harmony, a doctrine echoed in the pictorial harmonies of Velaquez’s Las Meninas … with this painting Velasquez idealizes a vertiginously steep hierarchy. Katz does the opposite … in his compositions, which accord every figure the full measure of his attention and thereby offer pictorial equivalents of democracy.” What’s significant about the author’s perception here, and throughout his essay, is that he makes a direct correlation between Katz’s formal strategies and the artist’s frank, “play it as it lays,” social pragmatism. Ratcliff’s essay is generously offset by 300 full pages and images, including 250 paintings, a number previously unpublished. These include portraits of such New York School poets and painters such as John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, Kenneth Koch, Lois Dodd, and Larry Rivers.
The immediacy of one’s initial reaction to a large-scale Katz portrait is triggered by the artist’s desire, in his own words, to paint “the initial shock of seeing.” This is not necessarily an effect that can be pre-determined in the viewer’s mind’s eye, yet it means that Katz himself needs to be exhaustively present to this frank intent, a need which very early on lead him, painting plein air in Maine in the late 1950s, to a realization he termed “painting from the back of my head” (by which he means intuitively). Addressing this point of perceptual complexity, Ratcliff accurately invokes lines from the poet Robert Creeley (a collaborator of Katz’s on a series of etchings in 1999) to elucidate the rich experience of standing in the midst of, and simultaneously being taken away by, the insistent flow of daily life: “As whatever came in to be seen, / Representative, inexorably chosen, / Then left as some judgement. / Here thought had its plan.” The poet, like the artist, takes clear responsibility for his chosen subject, yet is simultaneously aware that the subject practically chose him aforethought. The mere appearances and surface tensions that Katz’s paintings seem to doggedly adhere to are ultimately supported by a deep, oceanic memory of all-over completeness. The result is that his depictions of persons , places, and things take on an immemorial grandeur. The fact that the artist had located this scale of being, basically in his own backyard, is his signal achievement. Every so often Katz will dip into a higher social register (of pop cultural royalty) in his choice of sitters. Examples here include the likes of the actress Tilda Swinton and model Christy Turlington, both significantly sans makeup. Yet he tends to reduce even such glamorous subjects to fabulous paintings, rather than depend upon fabulous subjects to create glamorous paintings. Most interesting of all, in this particular regard, is his voluminous output of paintings, prints, and drawings of his wife Ada. She is so obviously possessed of an innate glamour, the kind that ersatz glamour can’t actually abide, that she has become somewhat of a perfect local vehicle for Katz’s elegant universality. In all her guises, as depicted over many years by her ever-loving husband, Ada has come to represent an almost complete redefinition of the portrait subject. Possessed of a wry wit, she commented on this proliferative second nature of her identity by noting, “There I am again,” to The New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins on the occasion of an article research studio visit.
This comprehensive, yet compact (11 by 11 inches) volume for Rizzoli was edited by the poet (and the artist’s son) Vincent Katz. In his introduction he writes, “It seemed germane at this point in time, with Katz in his tenth decade, to examine Katz’s world through his portraits.” He goes on to say that Carter Ratcliff was specifically chosen as someone intimately familiar with both the artist’s work and contemporary social milieu. Indeed, Ratcliff even appears a few times in some of the artist’s early works seen in the book. Having become quite familiar myself with the wide variety of previous perspectives published about the artist’s work (I’ve written on Katz’s more recent works in multiple reviews and in an exhibition catalog essay, and so in the process absorbed many of these viewpoints), I was happily surprised to be taken through the artist’s life via portraiture in such a rigorously perceptive way as Ratcliff fashions here. He makes clear that Katz’s ambition towards the simple life with regards to the immediacy of his painting involves a highly civilized sense of aesthetic decorum.