Alex Katz
by Frank O'Hara

I think Katz is one of the most interesting painters in America.  He has the stubbornness of the “great American tradition” in the dominating face of European influences-more in the spirit of Winslow Homer than of Prendergast, for example-and the ability to understand, or better, interpret an enthusiasm so it will work for his individual interests.

In the early ‘50s the example of Cezanne made him want to do “all-over” paintings like Pollock and Guston were doing, and to understand why they were doing them.  A further stubbornness led him to want to make the all-over paintings all-over paintings of trees and the patterns of their leaves in the light, which leads us right back to Cezanne.  Two years later, in 1953, Pollock himself was to show Blue Poles and The Deep, two works which despite their almost total abstraction have certain naturalist referents beyond the association obviously indicated by the artist’s choice in titling. And one of the most moving aspects of Guston’s work has been the continuing reference in it to a subtle emotional naturalism, the paint as a rock, the rock as a head, the head as a cloud, the cloud as thought-in-paint.  In this operation, whether conscious or not, Katz was pulling together his enthusiasms and influences into a congruent assemblage, reinforced by his equal passion for Matisse and his interest in what Milton Avery had seen in Matisse. He freed his own painterly feelings and widened their range of possibility precisely at the moment when he was focusing them on a specific intention.

At the present the progression I have sketched seems rather unexceptionable.  Pollock is now a recognized master, Matisse is a god, Guston renowned.  But in the ‘50s, fruitful as they were for the art of all Western nations, New York itself was inundated by the German, as well as Abstract, Expressionists and few figuratively inclined artists could withstand the onslaught.  Katz and Larry Rivers are notable exceptions, and the thanks for maintaining their originality of position in relation to their respective tendencies toward imagery was to have been belatedly assigned to the “camp” of Pop Art, variously as Fathers or as Followers-as totally erroneous an attribution as the current allegation that certain younger artists have “given” de Kooning ideas.  One can only wish that they had gotten more ideas from him, and that some of the Pop artists had paid closer attention to what Rivers and Katz, in their different ways, were doing.

Ideas which did appear to emerge within a very short time: Willem de Kooning’s Marilyn Monroe and “Woman” series, Katz’s series of Ada slightly later, and then later (though Katz’s Ada series is still continuing) Andy Warhol’s series on Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy.  However historical these emergences may seem to us in our collapsed-space-capsule attitude toward recent art, all appeared within an immediately contemporary context, not, as some critics prefer to prescribe, marking epoch-making differences; the imperative need in American painting for the radical treatment of the figure in a manner which was personal to the painting impulse of the artist rather than conceptual in a “communication” sense.  Each in his own way: and the stylistic strength of each holds the figure painting in the grip of the total oeuvre: de Kooning’s with his abstractions, Katz’s with his landscapes, Warhol’s with his Brillo boxes.  There are no losses of specificity, but there are no discrepancies between modes of operation.

Katz’s “break-through” in 1959 was toward enlargement of image, a move away from personal characteristics in the handling of paint, in order to emphasize the abstractness of the subject and the inherent values it possessed, and which he released.  Warhol later accomplished this through the use of silk-screen methods which became highly influential (though never with his particular zing), and both artists were taking the opposite position from de Kooning’s, whose women had become abstract through the extreme personalization and primacy of emphasis on paint-handling, the figure an inspiration for sublimely virtuoso performance in which the painting act revealed its capabilities for surcharged emotion.

For Katz the image, and his TV, billboard or movie close-up discovery, provided a way of both isolating and abstracting each separate feature, as if it were an arc, a rhomboid, an ellipse, within the psychological unity which the audience imparts to a recognizable form.  Although he continually paints faces, and they frequently look like the subject, his painterly interest is about as portrait-ish as Mondrian’s in Trafalgar Square.  He invariably drops the sitter fairly early on, and finishes the painting alone in his studio as a fact in itself.  For Warhol the photographic image provided the opportunity to iconize or assemble in compositional series a number of images, both frivolous and grand, depending on the painting, the complete assemblage of faces of Jacqueline Kennedy in black on violet ground being especially notable in its cool force. (Lately he has carried this even further, into the static use of cinemas as time-recorder, in many instances, of what could have been the subject of one of his paintings).

Katz, obviously influenced by the flat, mat de Koonings of 1938-45 in the application of paint, has a smooth, hard surface in his best paintings.  When he errs it is toward the Impressionist-Fauve areas of early Matisse and Marquet, estimable enough in themselves, but Katz’s work cannot stand the slightest hint of luxuriousness or sentiment because the underlying rigidity of structure, however subtly manifested, forbids it.  His realization of the head or figure in a plane of color or pattern has decided to be as strict in its sense of pictorial decorum as Barnett Newman’s or Kenneth Noland’s.  This is not to say that he does not get subtleties of facial expression, of psychological observation and of stance, in his subjects, but they are extra rather than primary pleasures. (Of a recent painting he remarked, “I painted the make-up.”)

The isolation of a visage (and within it the component parts) in a richly colored space which would be anonymous were it not for its painterly “character” again reminds one of Newman, whose stripes do not exist in an anonymous space because the character of that space, its color, dimensions and texture, equal the slender hieratic signal of the total work’s intelligibility.

Katz’s landscapes are also very important, because through them Katz has found a liaison between the personal and the general, the intriguing dialogue without which one is left with either formalism or expressionism.  Beginning with the all-over “tree” paintings, Katz moved, mostly during summers in Maine, toward increasingly abstract landscapes and increasingly accurate coloration in them in terms of the values in the paintings: he discovered the force of schema.  Upon the strength of this discovery in his consciousness depends a good deal of his most excellent work: the collages, the cut-outs, the heads.

One of the most often discussed problems of New York painting in the mid-fifties was that of the figure.  As de Kooning postulated it, what is its environment? It is naturalistic, a return to regional or provincial painting, is it illusionist or symbolic? Or is it just paint? De Kooning’s alarming solution was an environment of paint as miraculously deft and beautiful as the figure itself.  Katz’s less-known but much discussed (among painters) solution was a “void” of smoothly painted color, as smoothly painted as the figure itself, where the fairly realistic figure existed (but did not rest) in a space which had no floor, no walls, no source of light, no viewpoint.  Unlike de Kooning’s Women, they were not looking at you; unlike Larry Rivers’ figures and nudes, they had no attitude and no atmosphere; Katz’s people simply existed, somewhere.  They stayed in the picture as solutions of a formal problem, neither existential nor lost, neither deprived nor dismayed.  They were completely mysterious, pictorially, because there seemed to be no apparent intent of effect.  They knew they were there.

Katz then proceeded to remove even the “void.” He began to paint figures which he then cut out of the plywood, thus removing any possibility of a pictorial space or environment.  Wherever they stood was their environment.  Like the flat figures imported into England from Vienna to scare off burglars from the hearth, they assumed a presence so extreme that one painter who purchased a cut-out was terrified each morning that a thief was standing beside her bed and was relieved to lend it to an exhibition.  Another figure, an attractive girl in a bathing suit, has invariably elicited the male response of looking around to the back to see if the suit continues.  It does not.  This is a kind of gamesmanship which Katz is able to play rather more testify than entertainingly.

Perhaps the most exquisite development from the discovery of schema is the series of tiny collages, usually no more than six or eight inches high, which employ often minute elements of paper painted with watercolor to reveal a gentle, pastoral vein in Katz’s sensibility and an affinity to the kinder aspects of the Bauhaus through their subtly phrased and angulated “occasional” subjects.  Here the scale is as miraculous in miniature as the close-ups of heads are in large.  Three people coming over a hill, a raft in a lake, a boat in a bay, each conveys a simultaneous vastness and intimacy.  The size is intimate, but the scale is vast.  They are cut out in the most extreme sense.  The space itself is cut out.  And in the sensitivity to that very firmly and delicately established space there is more than a hint of Rothko’s influence in pictorial intensity, but also an irony which will not yield to the other’s spirituality.

Katz’s major efforts and achievements are nevertheless with the figure.  The heads and figures of his wife, Ada, give this beautiful woman, through his interest in schema, a role as abstract as that of Helen of Troy; she is a presence and at the same time a pictorial conceit of style.  In each painting he finds new features of her iconography and new implications in those features.  As with his landscapes, this head is the subject of transformations without losing identity as an image: in the most classical and most contemporary sense, a motif susceptible to variations of feeling and, like a high fashion model, to the accumulation of properties and roles, cars, sunglasses, hats, smiles, enigmas-when this head is upside down (and it makes no sense as a painting if looked at right side up) it gives a curious sense of calm abandon, when turned (painted from the back) a feeling of total rejection. In The Black Dress she appears in several attitudes simultaneously in one of Katz’s most “cool” paintings.

Katz is a cool painter.  Utilizing some of the effects of the Intimists to reinforce an abstract schema based on figuration and a technique which is “post-painterly,” he poses a problem in evaluation for American critics and connoisseurs of the New, an enviable position which one hopes he is able to maintain in a situation where virtually everything else has been gobbled up, if not assimilated or understood.