Sue Scott Gallery

Alex Katz: Theatre of the Mind

Sue Scott, Orlando Museum of Art (exhibition catalogue)

Paintings, Drawings, Cutouts

 
In many ways, contemporary art is like the theatre. The appreciative viewer is willing to suspend reality to experience multiple levels of meaning. Just as one knows that theatrical productions condense time and exaggerate stage characters and actions, one understands that what one sees on the canvas is not necessarily reality, although it may be real.
 
Alex Katz has been painting the real since the 1950s. His subjects—poets, artists, writers, friends and family—interact on a generalized stage. They have what the artist refers to as a certain sense of 'style'—his actors move with grace, their clothing and demeanor reflecting their place in society. Yet, like stage characters, Katz's people move in a world more stylized than realistic. Just as actors' subtle gestures and movements reveal hidden qualities of the characters they play, Katz—through placement, cropping, interaction of the figures and use or elimination of the background—gives clues into the personalities of his players.
 
When a viewer stands before an Alex Katz painting, he or she senses the curtain rising on a drama. In the theatre, one knows when the curtain rises the action is beginning. With a Katz canvas, however, one is not quite sure whether the action is starting, ending or simply suspended temporarily. This uncertainty heightens the dramatic tension which exists sometimes between the players on the canvas and at other times between the viewer and the image.
 
This exhibition of paintings, drawings and cutouts permits viewers to explore the theatre of the mind created by Alex Katz. It includes many of his so-called signature pieces—simplified, cropped renderings of the human figure in both paintings and cutouts—as well as a number of drawings ranging from the academic to fragmented body parts. Study sketches and drawings of larger works give a behind-the-scenes look at his process of creation. Several large scale paintings of the city and the country, indicating a more abstract direction for the artist, complete the exhibition.
 
Alex Katz has painted representationally throughout his career. His figures were iconoclastic when abstraction was the dominant style. Some of his contemporaries who also worked representationally—for example Jasper Johns—painted recognizable objects such as targets and flags but differed from Katz in intent. While they used inanimate objects to make critical observations on society and art, Katz used the interaction of people—both with each other and the viewer—to communicate his views on life.
 
Katz's responsiveness to his artistic milieu is evident when one considers his work against the backdrop of concurrent art movements. His early figures, from 1951-52, are simplified blocks of color, loosely rendered without facial features. The pure planes of solid color bring to mind the work of Henri Matisse, an artist whom Katz admires, while the painterly brushstroke—both on the figure and the background—indicates a kinship to the gesture of the Abstract Expressionists. Many of these early figures, for example those in After Softball (1953), are placed within a three dimensional landscape where they exist in an ambiguous, fairly deep space.
 
As the decade progressed, the figures became more distinguishable as they were given specific facial features. The brushstroke still shows a gestural looseness, although the figures begin to solidify and perspective is eliminated so that the shapes hover in a shallow, flat space. The omission of perspective and addition of specific physiognomy as seen in Paul Taylor (1959) increases the immediacy of the works by pushing the figure into the viewer's space. Katz enhanced this sense of drama by increasing the scale of both figures and canvas.
 
Perhaps subconsciously in response to the Minimalist art that was fully indoctrinated into the general art consciousness of the late 1960s, Katz's work became more linear and simplified, coalescing to the figures rendered with the clean lines and flat planes of color for which he is best known. The figures were enlarged and cropped indicating the influence of advertising—particularly billboards—on Katz's work. As the eighties saw a widespread return to the figure, Katz continued to use this imagery as his primary means of expression, but with certain changes. The line loosened up and the composition became more complicated in many of the works—such as Darinka (1986) and Meeting (1987), both in this exhibition. This evolution of style and technique is apparent in his cutouts and paintings.
 
In his cutouts, Alex Katz frees images from a predetermined space. Rather than presenting the work as a tableau on a proscenium stage, the figure now performs as theatre-in-the-round. Katz sometimes paints these cutouts on both sides, such as Nathan (1980), thus encouraging the viewer to experience them sculpturally. The first cutout came about quite by accident in 1959. Katz, working on a painting, was dissatisfied with the way the figure interacted with the background. Because he liked the image, he cut it loose, planning to adhere it to another canvas (Katz was also doing collages at the time). The artist noticed, however, that when the figure was liberated from the confines of the canvas, it took on a new life able to change with its environment. The stylistic development of the cutouts parallels that of the paintings. Early works, made of wood, are heavier with the gestural brushstroke giving texture and a certain 'hand-rendered' immediacy to the work.
 
As Katz's painted figures became flatter and more simplified, so did his cutouts and the medium changed from wood to metal to facilitate this evolution. Comparison of an earlier work, for example Frank O'Hara (1959-60) with the recent cutout Jessica (1988), indicates how striking this development was.
 
The smallest cutouts in the exhibition, Nathan (1980) and Tilted Ada (1983), differ from the oversized, sometimes overwhelming works one has come to expect from Katz. Yet, they indicate his use of scale and specific cropping to manipulate his audience. Just as an actor uses satta-voce to cause the audience to lean in close not to miss a word, Katz uses small scale to draw the viewer into an intimate space.
 
There is a certain preciousness in small works. Experiencing a work up close, the viewer notices tiny nuances that might otherwise be missed. For instance, one can see the wisps of Ada's hair also as strokes of paint. By painting Nathan on both sides, Katz encourages the viewer not only to inspect the work closely, but to walk around the piece, experiencing it three dimensionally.
 
Katz seems to be challenging his viewers in another way. Although these pieces are small, they are nevertheless life-size and one becomes acutely aware of this by closing in on the figure. The sensation is somewhat shocking and one realizes that Katz has achieved the same confrontational effect with diminutive cutouts as with his large scale works. Fragmenting—showing a single section of the body—has interested Katz since the early sixties. His fragmentations, the gestures and the clothes and shoes they wear, may reveal as much about a person as a full portrait. Further, by focusing on one aspect of the physiognomy, Katz singles it out for attention, forcing his viewers to pay attention to things which perhaps would go unnoticed otherwise.
 
For example, Ada (1982)—at first glance a mere sliver of space—is actually the reduction of an image to shoes, legs and part of a skirt. Shapely legs emerge from classic black pumps and disappear into a knee-length, fashionable skirt of traditional fabric, communicating with a minimum of clues the style and presence of the sitter.
 
In Julian (1986) Katz zeroes in on the hands of artist vague shadows floating against the dark of the night. White strokes of paint so pure one can almost detect the mark of the brush define both building and surface of the picture plane. A slice of moon further defines the space, behind which various shades of black melt into the distance.
 
Katz takes this move to abstraction one step further in Fog II (1988) where he again plays subtle gradations of color against one another to create a dense, almost mystical sense of space. The artist saw this image one evening about 7:30 p.m. and was attracted to the light. He returned the next evening to record on canvas that moment when time hovers between night and day. The result leaves the viewer struggling to penetrate the surface. Standing in front of this large canvas, one gets the sense that what lies beyond verges on the sublime that both Mark Rothko and Frederic Edwin Church sought to achieve in their grand scale paintings.
 
This painting of a cabin in the woods is about more than meets the eye; it has to do with symbols and the collective memory. "People have seen that painting," said Katz, "and they knew what time it was, and what it was. It's not an individual thing. I think almost everyone has that image—or something they can relate it to—in the back of their memory."
 
Black Brook (1988), A Tee in Winter (1988) and Tree (1989) offer different views of nature. Black Brook is at once a panoramic and a close-up shot. This painting grew out of the artist's desire to paint nature, but not paint a scene; he wanted to create a landscape while at the same time make a great big, complicated painting. Katz sees it like an intimate view exploded, acknowledging that "three feet away, one is inside the paint; twenty feet away one is inside the painting, and at fifty feet the picture looks realistic." (5)
 
Unlike the more distant views presented in other land and city scapes, A Tree in Winter (1988) and Tree (1989) are close-up inspections of nature. A Tree in Winter is more than the skeletal structure of a leafless tree denuded by the elements. At once organic and brittle, the veiny limbs of the tree become a web of blue paint which both creates the shallow space of the painting while indicating an infinite space as the lines shoot off the canvas in different directions. In some ways it seems to capture both the microcosmic and macro cosmic in a single image. Odd-angle cropping places the viewer in the painting by forcing one to look up instead of at the tree.
 
In the tradition of Gustave Courbet and other landscape painters who made study sketches en plein air before completing the large scale painting in the studio, Katz began Tree with a series of three sketches quickly worked in the out-of-doors. Each shows a Katz-like progression of simplification towards the finished work, pristine in its sparseness. They also exemplify how the artist plays with scale and placement in working toward the final composition.
 
In the three studies of Tree, Katz reveals his interest in spontaneously capturing light. Gestural jabs of pigment become the light as it is reflected on and through the leaves. The artist has progressively darkened the background and solidified the trunk of the tree thus spotlighting the tube of white emerging from a field of green-black. The result is a dramatic contrast of light against dark. Interestingly, the inspiration for this painting was not the maple tree which he had seen out his window for years; rather it was the way the light hit it "like a flash" on a particular day that appealed to the artist.
 
The overall application of paint and the move from realism to abstraction in these large scale works hearken back to the days of Abstract Expressionism when Katz was just beginning. One wonders if the strength of these works lies in the fact that Katz's oeuvre has come full circle, reaching a denouement with these larger, more spiritual works. Regardless, in these semi-abstract paintings, one can trace the move from drama to pure poetry.
 
Earlier in his career, Alex Katz stated that one of the reasons he made paintings was to help people feel better. Over the years, as he realized that there were both positive and negative aspects of paintings, his intention changed. Although he no longer seeks to always uplift his viewers, he still sees his art as providing the opportunity for his viewers to transcend the mundane. Just as the audience sits in a darkened theatre where they are pulled into the lives of the actors on stage, so are his viewers invited, either to experience briefly the dramas enacted on canvas, or to step into the scene and become an actor on a universal set.
 
-Sue Scott Curator of American Art
 
 
1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes by Alex Katz in this essay came from a conversation between artist and author December 2, 1989.
 
2. Ann Beattie, Alex Katz (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1987), pp. 75-76, 85.
 
3. Hans Belting, "Image or Painting? The Art of Alex Katz." Exhibition catalogue published by GaIerie Bernd Kluser, 1989, Munich, Germany, page 2.
 
4. Donald B. Kuspit, "Alex Katz at Marlborough and Massimo Audiello." Review. Art in America, November,1988, p.78.
 
5. Ibid. Belting, p.3.

 

 

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