Fresh as Tomorrow: Alex Katz in the '60s
by Donald Kuspit

Alex Katz, "The Sixties," Apr. 27-June 17, 2006, at PaceWildenstein, 545 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Are Alex Katz’s paintings as flat and manicured as they seem when quickly seen? I don’t think so: They’re full of exquisite painterly passages, often somewhat rough-and-ready looking — daringly expressionistic, even violent. Especially when it comes to rendering nature: It’s as though the turbulent inner aliveness of the matter-of-fact figures — it’s they that have the flat, manicured, stereotyped look for which Katz is officially known — has been displaced onto nature, bringing its organic aliveness to dramatic emotional life, indeed, giving it the uncanny freshness of an out-of-control revelation.

Thus, the excited, almost manic green in Ada in the Woods (1960) looks more alive than she seems capable of being, as neatly alive as she is in her red sweater and white skirt. Similarly, the aggressive, almost all-encompassing green of Alex, Ada and Vincent (1961) dwarfs the figures into irrelevance, as conspicuous as the luminous whiteness of their idyllic summer clothing makes them. A similar tendril-like nature, reaching out to the human figure as though to strangle it in a Laocoon-like embrace, appears in the otherwise subdued Peter Humphrey (1960). He may be quietly reading and self-absorbed, but unconscious forces are churning in him, exposed by the hyper-dynamic nature: The repressed is irreverently returning, threatening to disrupt and even overrun him — certainly to knock him out of his comfortable chair.
One can’t help thinking of a Hollywood horror movie in which an alien underground force creeps up on the unaware protagonist, consuming him with his own disavowed feelings: Katz’s nature is discomforting and nightmarish. It covertly represents — signals the hidden presence of — the inner demons that haunt his seemingly benign, pleasant figures, ostensibly vacationing in the country. Ada and Vincent in Maine Woods (1963) seem to be enjoying the simple Thoreauean life, but they’re in Nathaniel Hawthorne country: Evil -- sexual evil, as Hawthorne tells us — lurks in the woods. The overwrought black leaves of the trees in Luna Park (1960) — the flash of moonlight on the lake is probably derived from Munch, whose moonlit lakes are invariably morbid (a Midsummer Night’s orgiastic Dream gone bad) — are clearly devilish.  Sexuality is clearly the theme of Rockaway (1961); the curvaceous woman is a dangerous force of nature compared to the marine and sailor in their uptight uniforms. They may have been taught how to fight wars, but they’re engaged in a sexual war neither will win.
The contrast between neat self-containment and eruptive gesturalism — between uptight small figures and spontaneous nature, indeed, figures banalized by their inhibitions and nature flaring into unpredictable sublimity in moments of uninhibited self-expression — informs all of Katz’s ‘60s paintings, giving them a dialectical intensity, even feverish tension, never associated with the "cool" Katz. I am suggesting that Katz’s paintings are emotionally dense — not to say romantic — despite themselves. One wonders if his gestural energy is a residue of the abstract gestural sublime in Pollock’s all-over paintings, deliberately tilting it away from its superficial rhythmic crust toward the chaotic depths below. Indeed, Katz’s gesturalism is mischievously discomforting, even subversive of what seem to be socially proper human relationships. But then there is tension between Don and Marisol in the two 1960s paintings devoted to them, and the tension leaks out in the handling.
Similarly, the faces of Kynaston (1963), pictured in the classic pose of melancholy, and of Kenneth Koch (1967), are divided into light and dark segments, suggesting an inner split in their identity. There’s the outgoing social part — the face that is presented to the world, and that suggests a certain confident relationship with it — but then there’s the brooding inner part, which is much less social, and seems less formed than the social part, which may be why it keeps itself hidden. Katz’s figures present one face to the world — a sort of relaxed social mask (Lawn Party (1965), shows them all at smiling ease with one another, a casual sort of crowd) — but have another face which they wouldn’t recognize in any mirror. Looked at more closely, they seem like puppets performing in a little theater of social absurdity. It’s a subliminally anti-social sociality, full of artificial good cheer.
The Poppies and Superb Lilies, 2 (1967) are much more authentically alive. Confronting us with their vivaciousness — exhibiting themselves with nonconformist abandon, that is, with indifference to society — they have much more presence and impact than any of Katz’s figures, torn between outer poise and disturbing feelings. They seem to quiver nervously, as their often nervous outlines suggest, while the flowers are serenely beautiful. Their outer and inner faces are one and the same, that is, the face they present to the world and the face they keep for themselves are not at odds, as they are in the portraits of human beings.
I think that is the secret point of the portraits in One Flight Up (1968), a tour de force of self-appointed cognoscenti, an artistic and intellectual elite gathered together in a lonely crowd: We can see them from the front, where they make a nice social face, and from the back, where they have no face — no well-managed social appearance (however carefully combed their hair) — suggesting their inner facelessness, or rather their mysteriousness to themselves, and to us. That they have backs is the hidden truth about Katz’s figures, suggesting that there is more to them than meets the eye, and more to them than they know about. Katz’s paintings remind us that we really know very little about the people we meet and consort with, even those with whom we are on the most intimate terms. It is this disclosure of the undisclosed, and perhaps undisclosable -- of the self so secret that it is hidden even from ourselves — that keeps Katz’s paintings young and fresh, dare one say surprisingly ageless, even as the people he has painted have aged into seasoned veterans of art and literary wars, like Katz himself. 
Certainly Katz’s gesturalism paradoxically conveys the mistreatment he experienced at the hands of the Greenbergian Abstract Expressionists — he acknowledges as much — even as it angrily internalizes their gesturalism, suggesting a confused identification with the aggressor, confused because his idea of art defiantly attacked theirs as much as theirs opposed his. The ‘60s were a turning point in American art history, but Katz’s turn was not to Pop Art, which was a tongue-in-cheek fan letter to conspicuous consumption, nor to Minimalism, in which formalism committed suicide by becoming simplistic, nor Conceptualism, in which art as a whole committed suicide by Solomonically dividing itself into idea and material and trivializing the latter, but to an original, unusually insightful integration of expressionism and social realism.
Katz’s ‘60s paintings are a new kind of American social realism, for while socially objective they recognize that every individual, however socially exalted and self-important, is a self-deceptive subject, always deceiving others about who they are despite their willingness to relate to others.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.