Alex Katz and the Art that Conceals its Art
by John Russell

By my count, Alex Katz has had nine exhibitions in Manhattan during the last eight years, not to mention a great many elsewhere. Add to that his incisive presence on the local scene, the laconic wit and ''Thin Man'' style that he brings to any public appearance and his convivial way with both letter and postcard, and we are left with one of the most visible of living American painters, Yet it would be a great mistake to suppose that his retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum, which can be seen through June 15, is ''the mixture as before.'' It may make precisely the initial impact that we expect - one of a world in which everyone has nice clothes and is having a good time. Nobody fights, gets sick or goes hungry in a Katz. If, exceptionally, it rains, a king-size umbrella with the prettiest blue lining stands waiting to be unfurled.

Light floods the canvas, unstintingly, and the color comes straight from a fresh tube. The paintings look easy, the way Fred Astaire made dancing look easy and Cole Porter made words and music sound easy, but don't let's be fooled. When it comes to the art that conceals art, Katz is right in there with those two great exemplars.

A closer scrutiny will reveal, however, that the hedonistic look of his art is deceptive. His ''Swamp Maple, 4.30'' of 1968 is, for instance, an all-time favorite with him, and a painting that he hates to let out of the house. It is by no means ''a typical Katz.'' The light is hooded. The tall slender tree is in leaf. Grass, water, blue mountain and sky are in equilibrium. Nature holds her breath.

Can this be Katz, the visitor may ask, or is it an echo of Casper David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter, or of Fitz Hugh Lane, the American Luminist, who caught just that same aspect of Maine 100 years ago?

The answer is yes, on both counts. Katz has a searching and notably insubordinate eye for the past history of painting, and he also has a sense of the American past - or, to be precise, of the enduring aspects of that past. Nobody is more a man of our own time, at first glance, but in his paintings of the American countryside he has an instinctive, atavistic, all-permeating sympathy for historic modes of life. He doubles and trebles as trapper, clammer, scout, woodsman, oysterer, Coast Guard and Adirondack guide. Water, fresh or salt, is home to him, and he is as sensitive as Fairfield Porter to the jut of a jetty or as Ralston Crawford to the line of a bridge that streaks five straight miles toward the horizon.

As for ''Canoe'' of 1974, it is the very essence of the fragile, man-made barks in which Americans have always felt their way through summer waters. And there are earlier paintings at the Whitney, like the townscape called ''October N2'' of 1962, that prove him to have been in the class of Edward Hopper when it came to the lyrical presentation of a scene that could have been both dull and nondescript. Katz the closet dramatist has not often shown his hand in recent years, but in ''Luna Park'' of 1960 he showed that when it come to the moon rising between trees he could set the scene as tellingly as Edvard Munch himself.

Ever since - 30 or so years ago -he produced the tiny collages that make an all but incorporeal appearance in the opening stages of the show, he has specialized in the look of city people as they take it easy by the sea. (''The Black Dress'' of 1960 is both funny and good-natured about the readiness with which those same people would hurry to dress exactly alike the minute they got back to town). Once again, these images have a carefree look, but those who have seen Katz's sets and costumes for Paul Taylor and his dance company will know that even a scene of apparently untroubled flirtation like his ''Sunset (Christopher and Kate)'' of 1984 may have poignant undertones.

The show stresses, quite rightly, the role of the cut-out in Katz's art. Painted in oil on aluminum cut to shape and to size, these are idiosyncratic portraits in which the image is sometimes complete and sometimes cut to a telling sliver. Either way, details of dress and bearing are minutely observed and precisely edited. The portraits come in ones, twos, threes or (as in ''One Flight Up'' of 1968) a crowd. (The life-size self-portrait, dated 1968, is particularly revealing). We can judge from the portraits of Frank O'Hara (1959-60) and of Rudy Burckhardt and Edwin Denby (1968) that Katz's cutouts will turn out to be some of the most reliable of current human documents, as well as some of the most amusing.

Organized by Richard Marshall, associate curator at the Whitney, the show comes with a catalogue ($40 hardback, $25 in paperback) published in association with Rizzoli International, that includes a particularly telling essay by Robert Rosenblum. Also of interest this week: Elie Nadelman (Edward Thorp Gallery, 103 Prince Street): The art of Elie Nadelman sidesteps in and out of time in ways that never cease to tantalize. With the exception of two full-length bronzes that were cast after the artist's death, this show consists entirely of heads in marble, wood, bronze or brass. Some of them seem to come to us from an antiquity that is beyond time. Some recall the droopy, elegiac, 19th-century idiom that found its apotheosis in Saint-Gaudens's monument to the dead wife of Henry Adams. Others speak - or so it surely seems - for the look, the bearing, the techniques and even the hair styles of the 1920's.

Yet we can be mistaken, every time. The dapper cherrywood head that looks straight out of Michael Arlen's novel ''The Green Hat'' (1924), is here dated circa 1908. The sorrowing, Saint-Gaudensesque marble is dated circa 1925. The head in shining bronze, with its delicate Art Deco detail, is dated circa 1910. It is as if Nadelman bucked chronology, all his life long.

What is common to all these heads is dignity of conception, finesse of detail and fullness of human presence. More than one of them touches perfection. (Through April 5.)