Museum  November 10, 2022  Howard Halle

Alex Katz Makes Painting Look Easy at the Guggenheim

© 2022 Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Courtesy private collection.

Alex Katz, Blue Umbrella 2, 1972. Oil on linen, 96 × 144 inches (243.8 × 365.8 cm). Private collection, New York.

At 95 years old, Alex Katz certainly makes painting look easy. The 140 or so pieces comprising this Guggenheim survey of Katz’s nearly eight-decade career fill the museum’s rotunda effortlessly. No one could accuse these works of taxing your attention span: their allure depends more on immediate impact than on careful study, most evidently in the massive portrait heads for which Katz is best known. The works made in his 1960s prime lend themselves particularly well to the show’s title, “Gathering,” as they resemble a summoning of blithe spirits from midcentury New York.

As large as this selection is, however, it represents only part of Katz’s production, which can be attributed to his longevity and the fact that he is prodigious—and fast. In a recent New York Times profile, Katz mentioned that a seven-by-ten-foot painting he’d just been working on took only two hours to complete. This talent, however, has hurt his fortunes at auction compared to his generational cohort (his record high of $4.1 million is no match for, say, the $195 million paid for Warhol’s Marilyn, irrespective of the fact that Katz is still alive). It’s also earned him a reputation for being facile, and while Gathering suggests some truth to that, it also reveals an artist who is so much more.

© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York. Photo: Ariel Ione Williams and Midge Wattles

Installation view, Alex Katz: Gathering, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, October 21, 2022–February 20, 2023.

Relegating his subject matter to landscapes, still lifes, and interiors, as well as to portraiture, Katz is basically a genre painter, a tradition that found its fullest expression in 17th-century Holland. Indeed, his oversize likenesses are part of a continuum going back to the “tronie” (translatable to face) of Golden-Age Dutch art. Tronies weren’t formal portraits of known persons, but rather studies of the outward expressions—sometimes exaggerated—of anonymous individuals. Katz’s work differs, of course, not only because of their scale, or because his sitters are usually friends or family members, but also because the emotional range of his subjects is limited.

Although lips—pursed or slightly open in tight smiles—play a part in registering feeling, Katz relies mainly on the eyes, those windows onto which the soul opens here through slight shifts in position, or glints of light. In Blue Umbrella 2 (1972), for instance, Katz’s favorite model and muse—his wife Ada—wears a gaily-colored kerchief as she shelters herself from the pelting rain under a cerulean parapluie. Three dots of white forming a line across each of her irises are all it takes to conjure the impression that Ada is also taking refuge in a daydream.

© 2022 Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery

Alex Katz, 4 PM, 1959. Oil on linen, 57 1/2 × 50 in. (146.1 × 127 cm). Private collection.

Overall, Katz renders his portraits in flattened colors, with features sketched in by subdued brushwork. His subjects always seem to be at a cryptic remove, as if they were projections on a screen. In fact, Katz was inspired by movies and billboards, putting him in the company of Pop artists such as Warhol and James Rosenquist, although Katz’s approach has remained more apparitional than appropriative. Before he attained his signature style, Katz labored through clunkier vistas of figures and countryside that owed a debt to artists Milton Avery and Fairfield Porter. In time, Katz monumentalized his figures and began to steer his landscapes (mainly of the woods around his summer home in Maine), toward near abstraction. In one scene on view from 1992, the sun glints off a lake and resolves into a central, ectoplasmic blob that nearly swallows the composition whole in an ecstatic act of obliteration.

Discordant notes often intrude upon Katz’s vision of the sublime. In a painting from 1967 of Ted Berrigan, the poet wears a worried look, which is perhaps meant to reflect some generalized, Cold War-era anxiety, but still seems out of character for an artist once derided by a critic as a “high-level society painter.

© 2022 Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA at Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Courtesy Collection of Marguerite Steed Hoffman

Alex Katz, Departure (Ada), 2016. Oil on linen 72 × 144 in. (182.9 × 365.8 cm). Collection of Marguerite Steed Hoffman.

An analogous rap on Katz—that his work is too redolent of White, especially WASP, privilege—might offer an explanation. Katz is Jewish, which, as his friend, the African American artist Arthur Jafa argues in the exhibition catalog, places him in a lineage of “Jewish artists rendering whiteness.” Speaking as a filmmaker, Jafa is referring specifically to Jewish pioneers of Hollywood—Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, and Samuel Goldwyn—who offered a homogenized, and very gentile, view of life in their films.

Jafa’s point speaks to a larger impulse throughout Judaism’s history of assimilating and blending in with surrounding communities at the expense of the visible signifiers (yarmulkes, sidelocks) of faith. Yet assimilation is hardly a shield against antisemitism, whether in Germany during the 1930s, or even at this moment.

However, it would be a stretch to say Katz's work deals with such issues, though a 1962-63 self-portrait of the artist glowering from under a black trilby is suggestively titled Passing. Ultimately, it's fairer to say that as an artist, Katz is an outsider wearing the mask of an insider whose work takes an aspirational shortcut to a promised land where the sharp edges of fitting in are sanded down by elegance.

About the Author

Howard Halle

Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen's Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.

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