Playing It Cool

Alex Katz

an exhibition at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York City, November 5–December 22, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition with essays by Frank O’Hara and Tom McGlynn
Gavin Brown’s enterprise, 72 pp., $20.00 (paper)
Alex Katz/Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York and Rome
Alex Katz: Vivien, oil on linen, 60 x 144 inches, 2017

Other animals use tools, but as far as I know, we’re the only ones to make paintbrushes. Painting is a physical thing, like sports or ballet. There are important exceptions, of course, like Wade Guyton and his followers, who use computers, scanners, and inkjet printers to make paintings, but for anyone not placing a heavy bet on digital tech, how one grips the brush matters, as does each finely calibrated aspect in the chain of command from brain to canvas: the size and shape of the brush, the viscosity of the paint, and the pressure exerted by the shoulder-arm-hand continuum, its direction and velocity. That’s what painting is on a physical level: brush hitting canvas. It’s been going on for a long time because the way it links perception with action intersects with something elemental about humans. Painting is no more passé than drumming or, for that matter, pole-vaulting, which is not to say that we all need to do it, or can.

Every painter is different. The way some approach the job can be compared to how a ballet dancer thinks about choreography. The steps are prescribed, and the music provides the tempo, but certain dancers have a distinctive élan or vitality that, when combined with the quality known as “attack”—the initiation of movement as well as the accents within a phrase—conveys a forthright, efficient character. Balanchine often likened choreography to carpentry, a task executed with diligence and precision. The point where technique meets an internal drive or intention represents, on the ballet stage, personality in motion.

Alex Katz paints real people, as he sees them. Starting out in the Abstract Expressionist milieu of the early 1950s, he found that his talent was best suited to realism, and if he ever looked backward, you wouldn’t know it. You can feel, in his early paintings, the struggle to translate observed reality into painted forms and still be part of the dominant conversation of the day. There was a big jump in the development of Katz’s style from the late 1950s to the early 1960s, as if, when the decade changed, someone fired a starting pistol and the race began in earnest.

One of Katz’s primary innovations was to bring the look and scale of billboards, movies, and TV to realist painting. He first deployed his invention—the head tightly cropped just above the eyes or just below the mouth, isolated on one side of the canvas—in the early 1960s with portraits of friends like Paul Taylor and Elaine de Kooning. The close-up, the fragment, the detail, along with flat color—these are some of the things that cinema gave to painting. Katz and the Pop artists, especially Roy Lichtenstein, shared a similar starting point, but the differences are instructive. Simply put,…

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