The Distinguishments of Grace
by Michael Scholnick

A good mile’s hop to 57th Street from his 30 year Retrospective at the Whitney, the Marlborough Gallery recently showed Alex Katz’s newest work.  The spacious uptown venue does justice to Katz’s “large oils on canvas.” They can be walked around, confronted and mingled with.  Their fused air of assurance is heartening.  One’s fulfilled by this prolific, mature talent, by the ripening of a first-rate master, by an intensity beyond sound workmanship.  Despite a mannered emphasis on form, the paintings embrace a genuine passion that marks yet a higher degree of success for this resourceful modernist.  The images produced, in fact, could probably frighten the typical viewer if felt and internalized with the complete force of the artist’s convictions.

Size and consequent fine point of scale are but one motif, though each work strikes a chord of distinctness in strategy and subject.  The paintings are keenly dramatic.  Katz works the canvas as a stage, telling you what’s happening, revealing simultaneously in the entire measure the intention and outcome of the thought.  Summer Tryptych, in ballet-like movements, in turn, portrays three handsome male-female couples.  The outdoor set is as studied and balanced as a Man Ray still-life arrangement while Katz forsakes none of the seasonal vividness.  The couples stand tall, unmoving like trees upon the deep grasses, assuming both a natural and public intimacy in the mild breeze.  Their simple acts of touching reflect another theme recurrent throughout the exhibit.  The permanent pressed cottons of the models’ outfits look somehow understated, albeit innately historical.  Katz gives us rather the distinguishments of grace, the earnestness of good breeding, casualness of the effect, and the tried solemnity of romantic love.  The sensed admiration of the environment and the strange individuality of the humans are enhanced by the unique white light penetrating the forest’s dark edge,

These scenes are controlled not by sheer energy and intelligence alone, and certainly not by chance.  Due to efficient planning, his methodical development of the surface into a final viewpoint, those marathon sketching efforts, a regimented application of brushed paint to blueprinted gesture, the smooth interplay of object with color fields, Katz’s products impart subtle statements of mood.  At determinable odds with the extravagant artifice, incredible flourishes of tone are nowhere more evident than in the multiplicity of shadings employed to render a face in broad detail.  He brings to bear the filmmaker’s coordination and the choreographer’s excesses of schooled beauty.  Magnificent indeed is Twilight, a diptych, a 96 x 144 in. space.  Foremost in the grandeur is a young woman with a very wise, pretty and open face.  Of shoulder length, chestnut brown mane, wearing a rose-pink scarf around the collar of her raincoat, she’s a knockout set in pointed contrast before darkening, mystic hues of a clear, say, late November day.  Half the area of the painting is occupied by a flat pitch black which is the immediate vastness of the penthouse architecture.  Not too many people home from work yet, or perhaps it’s Thanksgiving.  Strips of clouds, also shaded black, drift to accumulate above the terraces.  A few windows’ yellow warms the universe spinning like clockwork.  But it’s the lady’s firmness, her behavior and solitude, which dominates the storied cityscape.  Head cocked agilely, about to speak in confidence, hair aside, the pianissimo dexterity of those fingers will never be computerized.  The perspective is the key here, tricky and struck with ease.  The viewer is kissed at street level by her larger than life features looming in comparable stature to the monolithic horizon.  She upstages the twilight.

Katz’s decision as younger painter was to go for broke against a sea of abstract expressionists, eliminating certain liberties and focusing on draftsmanship and, his word, style.  There’s a splendor therefore in his vision and a sanctity expressed in these recent works where he aims to reinforce this mysterious knowledge of existence.  In Trio, steeped in a steel gray background, we look upon three adults reclining on a couch.  What irradiates the perfected figurativeness is the true knot of their meditations; their bodies’ relaxed touching is a rich evocation of gentleness amidst the soft actual contours of the interior.  Along with anatomical concision of paint, Katz never fails to entertain the viewer who remains an implicit subject.  He abstracts an ideal world of realism, exploiting our sense of correctness, while making an art devoted purely to technique and containment.  Right there in The Table, Katz’s epic discipline is tucked away in one shadow which lies underneath the familiar structure of boards marking the empty picnic site.  A tranquil lakeside surveyed at an impossible wide-angle, it’s a generous evocation of the great outdoors, an almost surreal flicker of fresh air bathed in frenzied sunlight.

These extraordinary works were also well complimented by seven drawings hung in the small room adjacent to the Gallery’s showpiece, its sculpture garden.  The drawings, in pencil and charcoal, show Katz’s essential, informative line; his scientific shapings which exact and specify and do not distort.  His art would be worth a trip anywhere to see.