‘Alex Katz: Gathering’ Review: Painting Private Life at the Guggenheim
by Andrew L Shea

The New York artist’s evolving depictions of friends and family form the bulk of a vast retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum
Jan. 17, 2023
Gertrude Stein, that master of enigma, once declared that it was only by writing poetry for a very small audience that she ended up becoming so famous. The idea might pertain to the contemporary painter Alex Katz, who for nearly eight decades has centered his work around a small coterie of friends and family, but who has long enjoyed widespread attention and is now being celebrated with a bounteous retrospective in the most public of venues: New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
A native New Yorker who was born in 1927 and grew up in Queens, Mr. Katz began painting as a teenage student, made his mark as a sprightly realist in an age of abstraction, worked undaunted through the decades as fashions came and went, and at 95 years of age continues to paint today. “Alex Katz: Gathering,” curated by the Guggenheim’s Katherine Brinson, collects 154 artworks to tell this tenacious story along the spiral ascent of the museum’s central atrium.
While most painters, in some sense, are concerned with communicating personal experiences as public images, with Mr. Katz the translation of life into art becomes a subject all its own. Among the earliest works on display is a 1946 portrait of the artist’s mother rendered in large zones of moody color, and we’re already seeing Mr. Katz pit familial intimacy against aesthetic formality. Summer trips to rural Maine led him to embrace plein-air painting, and subsequent sun-drenched efforts make clear Mr. Katz’s ambition to capture his experience of nature through what he described in 1967 as the “sensation, energy, and light” that he found in the Abstract Expressionist canvases of Jackson Pollock and others, then being shown for the first time back in Manhattan.
Synthesizing these two impulses, toward vibrant gesture and perceptual reportage, Mr. Katz probed a niche similar to that of the older painter and critic Fairfield Porter, a realist fellow-traveler who became a friend and an early supporter. In the luminous domestic interior “4 PM” (1959), Mr. Katz plays variations on the theme of yellow—a response, perhaps, not only to Porter’s intimist example but also Matisse’s “Red Studio,” which was by then in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The references are most obvious in Mr. Katz’s linear articulations of furniture against broad expanses of color and the painting-within-a-painting that hangs above a woman seated below.
Over the next few years, however, these private expressions became increasingly public-facing. Canvases became bigger; colors became cleaner; quavering impressions became iconographic forms built on efficient brushstrokes, structurally sound and technically virtuosic. Mr. Katz settled upon a layered approach to wetinto- wet painting, here keeping the line clean and crisp, there letting the loaded brush meld glissando gradations from one midtone to another, as in the crepuscular backdrop of the magisterial “Vincent and Tony” (1969). These were the hallmarks of Mr. Katz’s inimitable “high style,” achieved by the mid-1960s, which produced canvases that seemed eager to compete, in sheer wall power, against not only the gargantuan productions of Pop Art and Color Field painting, but also the immense visual impact of cinema and advertising.
Duplication, a strategy common to comic books and suggestive of filmic montage, became a habitual concern. In “Ada Ada” (1959), a single canvas holds two images of his wife (whom he married the year before and went on to depict more than a thousand times). The two Adas, both in blue dresses, seem identical at first, but close investigation reveals, from left to right, a small smile just barely creeping in. Elsewhere we find Mr. Katz taking his figures off the wall, standing wood (and later aluminum) cut-outs upright in gallery space, toying with our expectations of illusion, flatness and seriality. Here at the Guggenheim, these are sometimes placed along the precipice of the ramp, and on a busy day can blend into the crowd of visitors enjoying the exhibition, though Mr. Katz’s individuals are typically better dressed.
But despite all the cheeky theatrics, Mr. Katz never went full Warhol. If the latter artist earned his 15 minutes by churning out mechanical portraits of international celebrities, Mr. Katz grounded even his most stylized works in the personal, local and handmade, as well as the human nuance of direct observation. In other words, he was still making attentive pictures of family and friends—among whom were a community of influential (though not quite famous) vanguard poets, intellectuals and artists. Walking up the Guggenheim’s ramp, one recognizes (along with Ada, a constant presence) acclaimed poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and LeRoi Jones; visual artists Robert Rauschenberg and Lois Dodd; art historian Irving Sandler; choreographer Paul Taylor and dance critic Edwin Denby; and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt.
This bohemian “gathering” takes on an air of festivity, though the party is held in check by Mr. Katz’s emotionally taut style. It comes as something of a shock, then, to proceed to the most recent works, which return to deep study of the landscape’s natural light, abandoning not only the artist’s sitters but also his highwire technical bravura. More unfastened than anything he’s done to date, these paintings can be obscure and even cryptic. Works like “Crosslight” (2019), a lustrous evocation of what look like trees in a green puddle’s reflection, still show Mr. Katz in control of his brush, but with little interest in facilitating our easy understanding of his pictures. A final room contains several enormous, startlingly spare canvases, most reduced only to black and white pigments. These works evoke an atmosphere of haunted solitude. They constitute a remarkable latest development in this indomitable life of artmaking.
—Mr. Shea is a painter and writer.