The Red Smile, 1963, oil on canvas, 78 7/8 x 115 inches. (200.3 x 292.1 cm), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee 83.3. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y. Photograph by Bill Orcutt
About twenty miles east of New York City in the town of Roslyn Harbor is the Nassau County Museum of Art. Situated on 145 acres of well-manicured land and housed in a handsome three-story Georgian mansion purchased by the art patron Henry Clay Frick for his son, the museum is a pleasant retreat from the city on a hot summer afternoon. Now through October 13, in an exhibition well suited to the idyllic setting, the cool, colorful, and affable works of Alex Katz occupy the museum’s entire first floor. Though the museum is small, it has selected smartly from the Whitney’s large Katz collection and the exhibition feels expansive, giving viewers an excellent survey of Katz’s entire career.
Katz has been associated variously with color field painting, pop art, and modernist realism, but looking over his career now, one feels that he only really belongs to the school of Alex Katz. The works on display, painted in variety of different media from the early 1950s to the late 1990s and ranging in size from small composition boards to wall-covering canvases, all show Katz’s unique attempt to reconcile elements of abstraction with realism. Influenced by films and billboards of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the size and scale of the abstract expressionists, Katz’s blown up, bright, figurative paintings have become, for the past few decades, the most recognizable brand in the representational art game.
Eli, 1963, oil on canvas, 73 5/8 x 95 5/16 inches (187 x 242.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Fischbach 64.37. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins
Eli (1963) perfectly exemplifies Katz’s style. This enormous brightly hued portrait depicts the artist Lois Dodd’s son, who Katz liked for his “English complexion.” It is a portrait that has both the elegance and the absurdity of an ad in a glossy magazine (Katz has famously created original work for Harper's Bazaar and W Magazine). The subject— dominating the foreground and shown only from the neck up—is oddly outfitted in an old-fashioned British safari hat. His features are chiseled and his eyes somewhat lifeless. He has the blank beauty of a male model, as Katz shows no interest in trying to say to something about the subject’s emotions or personality. It’s as if Eli’s face is only interesting as a way of playing with light and color. But this has never been a concern for Katz, who has long tried to have style subsume the other aspects of a painting. As he once said, “I’d like to have style take the place of content. . . . I prefer it to be emptied of meaning, emptied of content.”
The large swathes of flat, bright colors do, however, give the work some visual flicker and coherence. A muted expanse of lime green meets a pretty and perfectly washed out pale blue sky. The subject’s cream-colored safari hat has a rich, deep blue-green lining that frames his delicate pink complexion, and a pair of cool, blue-grey eyes give the portrait a distinct focal point. Katz here, as elsewhere, shows himself to be a very good colorist, perhaps because he has always been a dedicated student of the effects of light. Yet this painting, like many of his other paintings, lacks a certain tension in terms of composition and subject matter that one doesn’t find lacking in the works of, say, David Hockney.
Day Lily II, (1969), Lithograph, 20 3/4 x 28 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase 70.32. Art © Alex Katz/ Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
The only painting that really breaks from standard Katzian styling is the painting Untitled (1951), which shows a young Katz engaged with, but also subtly working against, the currents of abstract expressionism. The work calls to mind the fit-together forms of Conrad Marca-Relli, but even at this early stage Katz shows himself attached to figurative realism. This seemingly abstract agglomeration of shapes and colors reveals itself to be a crowd scene composed of clusters of people’s profiles. But this more-abstract-than-not painting represents something of a road not taken for Katz, as he quickly settled into his signature style, leaning heavily towards representation.
Katz’s pleasant depictions of everyday American life and leisure—defined by modernist flatness, arresting cropped compositions, zippy colors, and chic emotional detachment—make his work easy to like. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in this world of pretty people with flawless skin and perfect smiles? But don’t Katz’s paintings smack of aspirational branding, and make him, as Robert Hughes put it, a kind of “Norman Rockwell of the intelligentsia”? Other painters, of course, have been interested in the happy, more pleasant aspects of life—chiefly the Impressionists—but there is something about Katz’s hyper-smooth style that gives his work an unappealing otherworldliness, as if his figures have had the life airbrushed off of them. Katz once said that he “wanted to make paintings you could hang up in Times Square,” and I think, unfortunately for him, he may very well have succeeded.
“Alex Katz: Selections from the Whitney Museum of American Art” is on view at the Nassau County Museum of Art through October 13. The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11:00 a.m. – 4:45 p.m. Screenings of the film “Alex Katz: What About Style?” are held daily at 11:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m., and are free with museum admission. Exhibition tours and lunchtime lectures on Katz’s work will be held on July 25, Aug 22 and Sept 26. The Museum is located at One Museum Drive in Roslyn Harbor, New York. For more details or information about this or other exhibitions visit nassaumuseum.org.