Cool Katz
by John Perreault

Modernism is being redefined.  It’s about time.  It is not fair or truthful to limit modernism to self-referring abstract art, which unfortunately has been the case.  Modern art was not, is not, and shall never be one kind of art, one style, one point of view, all rhetoric and salesmanship to the contrary.  Artists, critics and historians-all with vested interests requiring simplistic points of view-are equally at fault.  It is art that has suffered.

If one actually examines the phenomenon of modern art, it rapidly becomes phenomena; the singular fans out into the plural, offering an array of styles, precedents and possibilities.  It is not only our present pluralism in art that makes us now see historical modern art as pluralist.  It’s our re-examination of the facts of the art.  Modern art includes expressionism, futurism, surrealism and a host of other, non-abstract art movements and styles.  Yet abstract determinism has become widely accepted.  In this definition of modernism, the art of the last 100 years is seen clearly and simply as a series of steps toward total abstraction; this is progress, and hardly anything else counts or is worth considering.

This dogma makes it easy to codify and justify judgments about contemporary art, makes it easy to sell one kind of art as opposed to another.  Quality in art is determined by pedigree.  It’s the easy way out.  It’s commercially viable.  The mad compulsion for ranking art works-after all, if we are going to like something or buy something, it has to be the best-too often leads to submission to the good-taste authorities at the expense of the excitement and value of individual art experiences.  If you already know what the best art is, why bother to look at anything else?

Whether we date modern art from the realism of Gustav Courbet or from impressionism or from as late as cubism, it is still a more varied and contradictory-and therefore more vital-network of phenomena than some would have us believe.  Post-modernism, a term now fashionable, only blurs the issues by acknowledging a pluralistic present without acknowledging a pluralistic past.

Modernism is not just “progress” toward abstract art.  Originality and significant innovation are also modernist principles; contradiction is another.  But most important and most neglected of all is the principle that modern art should reflect life as it is actually lived.  This is true of Courbet, of the impressionists, the expressionists and even the cubists.  It is also true of Alex Katz.  In this sense, above all, is Katz a modernist.

Alex Katz has had 21 solo shows in New York.  His first was at the Roko Gallery on 10th Street in 1954.  As the energy of abstract expressionism waned, he was one of the earliest artists to adapt some aspects of abstract expressionism-particularly an increase in scale and the use of flat fields of vibrant color (as in the work of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko)-to new representational painting.

As I write this one of those big, fat Abrams books sits on my desk.  Published last year, Alex Katz is full of hand-tipped color reproductions and offers an invaluable text by critic Irving Sandler.  Also I have just seen two large exhibitions of his work. At Marlborough (40 W. 57 St., through March 29) we are treated to recent paintings, some of them wall-sized, such as the spectacular The Red Dance.  Out at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Park, through April 27) “Alex Katz: Scale and Gesture” features seven giant paintings, dating from 1965 to 1977.  Since as far as I know no New York retrospective is yet planned for Katz, and since I am thoroughly enthusiastic about much of the new work, perhaps this is as good a time as any to offer an interim evaluation.

Katz is the quintessential New Yorker.  He was born here; he attended Cooper Union.  He was part of the nearly mythological 10th Street art scene in the ‘50s.  More than any art captures the glamour of New York.  Where else can you meet so many artists, poets, dancers? And where else are the women so beautiful?

If in Katz’ paintings the scene sometimes changes from loft light and bare studios to Maine or the Carribean, well, the light may be different but the people are still New Yorkers.  Only a New Yorker would throw a frisbee like the young man on the green and golden lawn of His Behind the Back Pass, and only three New Yorkers-one in a polka-dot turban-would look precisely that way in front of the palm trees of Bocqueron, a study of contained energy.  At the Queens Museum, the people in the two Lawn Party paintings (1965 and 1977) are animated to such a degree and are having such a good time that it’s obvious they have taken the city along with them into the country.

Katz should be made the official New York City painter.  His wife, Ada-his favorite model-in many ways and in many paintings has become The New York Woman.  In the floor-to-ceiling December we see her amid snow flurries.  (Is this Fifth Avenue?) Yet she is just as “New York” in The Red Band.  She poses twice under an orange umbrella, the painting (and the poses) divided by the metal umbrella pole like a Newman “zip.”

Someone once asked me why Alex Katz painted only rich people.  In fact, he rarely does.  Poets, dancers and the like-his usual subjects-are hardly ever rich.  But they often have style.  Katz, because he concentrates on style, makes everybody look rich by bringing out the inner richness that he admires.  The pleasure principle means a lot to him, not only in the subjects he chooses-Night consists of four views (in four panels) of a dancer that capture her pleasure in movement-but also in the way he paints, using flat, decorative areas of color.

Is Katz a realist? If so, where are the wrinkles and the pimples? Katz is more concerned with types than with verisimilitude, more concerned with subtleties of color, light and gesture.  So although there are portrait aspects to his works, the visual information is not obsessively particularized.  Instead it is generalized so that we may enjoy the ambience rather than too many details.

Just as modernism is pluralist, so is realism.  A high degree of verisimilitude is not the only definition of realism; nor is full illusionism.  Katz’ sometimes cartoonlike stylization and dramatic use of flatness would, for some, disqualify him as a realist.  But realism has also come to mean painting from life in such a way that “normal” space and special relationships are not violated.  When we look at the representation we know that it is based on something real out there in the world and that, theoretically, the image could be verified.  So in this regard Katz is a realist.

I do not like all of the paintings at Marlborough or the Queens Museum.  The 1969 Paul Taylor Dance Company now looks too jumbled and mannered to me, and Song, Laura Dean Dance Company too stiff.  The sentimentality of The Dance and Our Eyes Have Met at Marlborough puts me off, although in the latter the virtuoso back-lighting effect probably saves the painting.  But risk-taking is another thing-along with scale, color and gesture-that Katz inherited from abstract expressionism.

Scale and gesture-as in the title of the Queens Museum show-are important aspects of Katz’ modernist and realist painting. (Yes, some forms of realism are indeed modernist.) The scale owes as much to pop art billboard styles as it does to Pollock and Newman.  Katz’ people are bigger than life.  And gesture means the gesture of daring to paint such large, flat forms as well as the poses of the models.

But the best part of all is that no one else paints like Alex Katz.  We need his optimism and verve.  We need the life-enhancing pleasures his art affords.  We need his style.