Resting Katz face, much?

In truth, I have no idea why Katz's portrait model -- in all likelihood his beloved wife, Ada -- looks so grouchy. After all, Alex Katz is one of the most respected living artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The flat, simplified perspective of his paintings is familiar to any student or appreciator of Contemporary art -- I can pick out a Katz anywhere. 

Despite his present-day acclaim, however, Alex Katz was not always a slam dunk Contemporary artist. During the reign of Abstract Expressionism, the uniformly two-dimensional appearance of his paintings made Katz's style seem cartoonish, immature, and unsophisticated beside the sublime expanses of color on Rothko, Pollack, and Frankenthaler paintings. Though the irony of his simple compositions recalls the graphic satire of Pop Art, Katz lacks the acidic wit of Warhol or Lichtenstein -- he simply paints that which he sees.

In fact, the supposed "simplicity" of Katz's portraits and landscapes is entirely purposeful and, upon closer inspection, utterly deceptive. Katz focuses his attention upon the lines, colors, and shapes of his subjects, all but abandoning any attempt at shadowing or tone. Though this renders the figures and spaces within his paintings extremely flat, it allows Katz to place incredible significance in the slightest upward flick of an eyebrow, the merest suggestion of a smile.  Speaking in 1997 about the "lack of representation" in his work, Katz remarked:

“Everything in paint that's representational is false because it's not representational, it's paint. We speak different languages and have different syntax. The way I paint, realistic is out of abstract painting as opposed to abstract style. So I use a line, a form, and a color. So my contention is that my paintings are as realistic as Rembrandt's. Now, that's supposed to be realistic, but I don't see those dark things around it, I don't see those dark things anywhere. It was realistic painting in its time. For an artist, this is the highest thing an artist can do—to make something that's real for his time, where he lives. "

The minimalist honesty of Katz's paintings does, in many ways, feel more real than the explosively emotional surface of an abstract canvas. The simple grace of his figures makes the dramatic sturm und drang of gestural abstraction seem slightly hysterical, while simultaneously highlighting the deception of so many realist painters in attempting to render in pigment that which only exists truly exists in the flesh. 


Kelsey Leonard