The Shores of Light
by Kay Larson

Consider the delicate position of Alex Katz.  His wish to be recognized as a major painter has been obscured by his social role as limner to the Hamptons beach-chair set.  His escape from second-generation Abstract Expressionism — the hot source for his cool rebellion — brought him straight into the Pop Art era, which was eager to confuse his simplicity with the radical new superficiality then in fashion.  In recent times, his boldest efforts have been overexposed yet publicly unexamined.  He might well feel some frustration about his place in art.

Until I pushed myself through his retrospective at the Whitney, I hadn’t much sympathy for Katz’s predicament.  I felt that those who live by Occam’s razor will always perish on it.  Katz’s determination to scrape away every shred of content, to reduce painting to its simplest denominator of style, left nothing but an elegant surface — or so I thought.  But I’ve changed my mind.

Art’s great gift is its ability to expand to fit one’s enlarged horizons.  Katz is a major painter, though a supremely subtle one.  He has been ill-served by the disconcerting things that happen to his work when it appears on the printed page.  In reproduction, the “edge” — the part of his work that is demanding and rewarding — disappears and only the superficial parts remain.  The edge is concerned with grand scale and heroic light, and an almost Oriental painterly reserve.

The Whitney exhibition, assembled by associate curator Richard Marshall, begins in the first years of the 1950s, when Katz was precociously struggling against the slop and drip of Abstract Expressionism.  The portraits from this period are brutally simple (Marshall notes their fondness for Manet).  People who admire Katz usually like the abstract force of these early pictures of his friends.  But the supreme revelation of the show-the point where Katz’s whole purpose comes into focus-is in a set of tiny collages made during the middle of the fifties.

The collages are so small that you can easily miss the little patch of wall they occupy.  They are built of bare spaces studded with amusingly minimal shapes — everything sliced out of hand-colored paper.  Occam’s instrument does the surgery.  In the four-by-six inch Sunset Cove, a cut-up orange disk-the sun-sinks into a slit in olive-tinted paper, as though into a cloud bank in a silvery-green dusk.  In Two Figures, the sky is blue paper, the sand is bright yellow, and five pieces of olive-green paper make up two pairs of legs; light falling on the cut side of each leg illuminates it like sunshine and shadow on the real thing.

The collages are miraculously minimal, yet powerfully abstract.  The ghosts of Marin and Avery haunt their tiny scenery.  There is as much light in them as in Fairfield Porter’s luminist realism, but their conceptual shell is more radically empty, more toughly considered.  They present the minimum of information with the maximum effect.  His work has gotten bigger, but it’s never gotten better or more focused.

When Katz settled into his mature habits, in the sixties, the size of his pictures increased but the scale remained the same.  It says a lot for those minuscule collages that they could expand to wall-size without effort or compromise.  The new scale allowed him to commandeer a wall with an authority learned from Abstract Expressionism.  Scale also gave him a framework on which to hang the extreme emptiness of style.

The argument between style and substance is never quite won.  The Whitney, cleverly, has given us both sides of the debate — juxtaposing Katz’s show with that of a younger figure painter, Eric Fischl, two floors below (“Art: The Naked Edge,” March 10).  Fischl goes for substance — that is, for urgent moral and social questions — while keeping painterly concerns deliberately in the background.  Katz goes for style, which means eliminating moral and social questions — and any taint of urgency — in order to keep his cool painterliness uppermost.

Who is right? Substance is more momentous, but it is also more likely to lose its power as moral values shift. (François Boucher, at the Metropolitan, is a casualty of that evolution.) Style is more superficial but more enduring.  Style survives even when moral values disappear or change. (We appreciate the great Japanese painters, for instance, long after the end of Edo culture.) The history of art is strewn with great stylists, Manet among them.  And Manet, interestingly, has inspired both Fischl and Katz.

Fischl can certainly hold his own-his message is vehemently of the moment.  Katz’s success is trickier and harder to see-it’s a matter, again, of presenting the minimum of information with the maximum effect.  In Bather (1959), Katz poses a woman in a bathing suit before a blue void that signifies the ocean; two thirds of the way up the canvas is a lone horizontal swipe of ocher that ends in a witty vertical exclamation, signifying a lighthouse on its sandspit.  You need far more words to describe this witticism than milliseconds to see it.  Katz has evolved a sign language that stands in for meaning; A zip of paint becomes a lip; a quaver of the brush suggests water; a line of raspberry next to peach describes the summer backlit on flesh.

By stripping everything away, Katz takes the enormous risk that nothing will be left.  What is left, happily, is the conviction that a painter has been here.  That can happen only in front of the paintings, where you can see the streak of the brush and the euphoria of light.  A reproduction just won’t do.  This is a show that simply must be seen nose to nose. (945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street; through June 15.)
MOMA-Watchers are ready for the good news: The Museum of Modern Art has reopened its “Projects” series.  The scheme is the same as it was in the old building: The Modern offers a room to artists who are too young or unknown to qualify for apotheosis in a retrospective.  “Projects,” in other words, is the museum’s only contact with artists under age 50.

There are several significant and forward-looking changes.  In the old building, artists occupied a closetlike room and a corridor off the restaurant.  The new room is still small, but it’s more benignly situated, in the main first-floor corridor, facing the garden.  Its first occupant, 32-year-old sculptor Win Knowlton, is a sophisticated choice.  Knowlton was picked by a group of junior staff from all departments of the museum, presided over by the serie’s watchdog, Linda Shearer.  Shearer’s first assignment as curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture was to get this movement off the ground.  The junior staff will now be able to speak for a generation that otherwise has no hope of seeing itself in the halls of MOMA.

Knowlton’s sculptures are akin to pre-Columbian pots recast by a mind that likes science fiction.  They are strong, handsome, playful, and wise.  The show’s brochure includes an elegant introduction by Bob McDaniel, a curatorial assistant in the Department of Drawings, who was Knowlton’s advocate in the group discussions and is now curator of this event.  Everything about the reappearance of “Projects” is a happy business, however modest our joy must be. (11 West 53rd Street; through April 22.)