Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Alex Katz at Richard Gray Gallery

I’ve been looking at Alex Katz paintings for nearly fifty years, but mostly as page size reproductions in contemporary art magazines where they stood out as the only realistic depictions of the world as attractive. How bold he must have been to fly in the face of the angst driven self expression of the 1950’s. But this is the first time I’ve seen a room full in all their wall-size splendor. Well, perhaps splendor is not the right word, even if these pieces are very well made. Katz displays a well studied discipline for both design and execution. You can feel both the instantaneous pull of his brush through paint, as well as the dynamics and scale of the design within which it operates. The resulting decorative effect is almost like an 18th C. Japanese screen – except that its beauty is more like off-the-rack, ready-to-wear casual fashions  rather than a precious, unique kimono.

Even though every mark feels fresh and perfect, there’s a dullness about the landscapes (were they painted at country clubs ?), and a fleshless, cleanliness about the mask-like faces that take these pieces to the brink of irony – an irony that Andy Warhol gleefully took over the top. They feel like commercial billboards for a conventional, impersonal, middle class, professional life, and Katz has been delivering the same sales pitch for six decades.

His wall-size, multi figure “Summer triptych” dates back to 1985, but most of the other work on display is current. Perhaps for his generation of Depression born, first-generation Americans, struggling to build such a life was a sufficient goal. But his vision feels like such an ordinary, work-a-day American world, as managed by corporate experts in marketing, law, and finance If you really want to experience that, why not just visit a super-sized suburban shopping mall?