An Olympic High-Flyer
by John Russell

Alex Katz is in many ways the prototypical American, the irreducible American, the Ur-American. For this reason it is difficult for them to understand what he does.

It is partly a matter of his bearing. He would be recognizable anywhere and on sight as an American. If it turned out that in first youth he had been chosen for the United States pole vault team in the Olympic Games, we should not be at all surprised. Something of that is there in the work, if we know how to look for it-the concentrated spring of the run-up, the delicate but decisive way with the pole, and the well-hidden effort that takes the vaulter over the bar.

Katz’s face and head have something to tell us, too. He is the archetypal Thin Man we remember from great old movies-a William Powell, let us say, but one who long ago his Carole Lombard and has lived happily ever after. And then there is his infection but almost soundless laugh, midway between a sneeze and a squeak. His laugh, like everyone else’s, has to do with someone being funny. But it is also about the excitement of finding that one idea fits exactly with another idea in a way that has never been noticed before.

A champion verbalizer, he has lived much with poets, but he does not talk in the roomy, consecutive, consciously oracular way that is common among Europeans who rate language high and have something of their own to say. His abrupt and often astonishing phrases come at us one by one, fast and unexpected, the way the little black ball comes at us on a squash court. If we don’t catch them on the bounce, they are gone.

In a recent interview with Philip Gefter, Alex Katz came out with some prize examples of that quick high bounce. We cannot imagine a European artist saying what he said when he was asked “Who are your favorite artists?”. “I always liked Egyptian sculpture. Nefertiti’s sculptor, I always thought he was like King Kong as an artist. He had such a hot line.” And on Veronese as compared with Mondrian-a comparison not often encountered on the other side of the Atlantic: “Mondrian has ideas which seem kind of crackerjack to me, but basically they have to do with a sensibility and his obsessive energy-so much passion and so much skill...I prefer paintings with less obsessive energy. It makes for a bigger style. You make something more grand. I prefer the idea of Veronese, like really big and bland. He’s big and he’s bland-no hot spots, he’s just all over. He makes Rubens seem like he’s kidding around. He makes the biggest, blandest paintings.”

As it happens, “bland” is a word sometimes used of Alex Katz’s own paintings by people who do not notice the surgeon’s sharp knife, the ferocious editing and the ever-present feeling for risk that go into those simple-seeming images. In those images, Katz himself appears quite often as founder-member, along with his wife, Ada, of the repertory company of human beings who turn up year after year. Unfailingly tender with the others, he occasionally pushes his own full-length profile to the very edge of parody.

But when it comes to his inner self, Katz is hugely secretive. Though omnipresent, that self is not easy to know. Nor does he want to make it any easier for us. Something that he said to Philip Gefter is right on target in that context: “One of the things I never wanted my paintings to be was obsessive, that kind of Expressionism that’s obsessive-painting that really has to do with the personality of the artist and his passion.”

It was, of course, precisely with painting of that kind that the first New York made so strong and enduring an impact. Someone said of the Abstract Expressionists, not so long ago, that they aimed to redeem the world every time they put brush to canvas. When Alex Katz came to painting in 1951 he could not have been further from that ambition. Nor has he got any nearer to it since. His secret self remains secret.

For all the apparent ease and openness with which he addresses the world around him, his work is marked by an element of classical reserve. Few painters now living are as alert, in their paintings, to the human comedy. Relationships form and unform. Unmarked young faces gaze out at the world with an American fearlessness and an outward uncomplication. Beloved seniors sit a little to one side, like the all-seeing ancients in Chekhov’s plays who are allowed just one tremendous outburst someplace in Act IV. And, like Chekhov, Katz never pushes us toward any one interpretation-or, indeed, toward any interpretation at all-of the complicated human entanglements that he sets before us. Some of the people he paints are champion_chatterboxes, but it is above all as a poet of silence that he sets them before us.

It is relevant to these matters that, like almost every New Yorker, Alex Katz is competitive by nature. There is in his idiom a strategic element and a delight in power-play. “You’re supposed to take from other modern painters if you’re a modern painter,” he said lately, “and you hope they take from you. Once you enter the modern world, you’re working with other people’s paintings. You have to address that issue.”

Initially, Katz’s work seemed to out of step with everything else that was being done in New York that people took it to be some kind of insult. In an art world predicated on private anguish and never-ending introspection, his limpid presentation of good-looking people who seemed not to have a care in the world was thought to be either mindless hedonism or an act of sabotage.

But gradually it turned out that Katz could flood a broad area of canvas with pure, uninflected color just as well as any color-field painter. He could cut and crop, chart the humors of Nature, work with pattern, spring chromatic surprizes. He could work for the stage. He could make freestanding cut-out portraits, painted on metal, that are as concise and as telling as a sentence by Chamfort or La Rochefoucauld.

He was never afraid to change, either. Hardly had he been typed as a painter of flawless weather and broad daylight than he painted a whole show of nightscapes. Coming to printmaking around 1965, he sided with Warhol and Johns. Talking about this to Barry Walker in 1987, he said, “I think they were the two printmakers who really challenged the European tradition-Warhol by making it, in a sense, more graphic and Johns by making it more painterly. The whole atmosphere here in the 60’s was a very exciting time to be looking at prints.”

In his prints, as in his paintings, tone and edge are major energizing forces. Edge and risk are one in this context. What looks so easy and so confident in a painting by Katz is compounded of a long series of adventures on unknown ground. It is from this, as much as from the overt subject matter, that exhilaration comes.

This is an art that conceals art, a lifelong dance in which no one misses a beat, an unspoken philosophical overview in which time and decay are halted. Alex Katz is an inspired guide to modern American manners and mores, but he is also someone who over the last 30 years has perfected a light, aerial, almost incorporeal way of floating the image on to the canvas. While perfecting that unmistakable idiom, Katz watched the work of others-their flatness, their way of decomplicating, their mastery of huge broad statement. But what came of it all is his and his alone. It gives pleasure and provocation in equal measure.