It’s a pleasure to look at Alex Katz’s paintings, and at the people and places in them; the people can show a restrained kind of pleasure themselves, though they don’t often look back at you. Instead they look aloof, sometimes through sunglasses, dressed for summer; we can try to enjoy their company, imagine ourselves moving carefully into the bright shapes and the hard light of their world. Sometimes the people are poets, or else dancers whose poise suggests runway fashion: Katz studied fashion in high school, worked with a dance company for decades, and spent a great deal of time, early in his career, with the exuberantly informal, intellectually playful poets known now as the New York school (John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler and so on). At other times the people in the paintings turn out to be the same person, Katz’s wife of 50-odd years, Ada, depicted with admiration and reserve.
As for those places, they’re comfortable, often outdoors: vacation spots, with seashores, piers and pine trees. They might be in Maine, where Katz lives for part of each year, or else they are other holiday spots for the denizens of New York’s Upper East Side, a long way from Katz’s own childhood as a Russian Jewish immigrant, born in 1927 and raised in Brooklyn and Queens. From there he attended Cooper Union, the famously selective Manhattan art college, and in 1949 the Skowhegan School in Maine: there, Katz has said, he found his vocation in figures and landscapes, attracted to the coastal light.
Katz in the early 1950s had trouble making his way into a gallery scene dominated by heroic abstractions such as those of Jackson Pollock. Rather than change course, he found friends and allies in poets — O’Hara, Schuyler, the dance critic Edwin Denby — and other painters, such as Larry Rivers, who had also returned to figuration. By the end of that decade his reputation was set: he has moved easily among New York writers and galleries ever since. While Katz has tilted back and forth among genres — one year brought a series of head-only portraits of poets, another a seascape — his sense of clean outlines and big colors has remained at the base of his style.
Katz favors bright, uniform planes, put together to make up faces and bodies, with just enough depth to keep up an illusion. Behind the people, and when there are no people, he offers solid lines, flat skies, landscapes that are almost abstractions, as in Matisse: Katz often seems to be thinking about Matisse, or else about other friendly modernist models for his not-quite-realist homage to how the world looks. (Katz’s memoir, Invented Symbols, says that “the only art book I had for twenty years” was a collection of pictures by Henri Rousseau.) The people themselves in Katz’s paintings can look almost flat too, like people on posters, in four-color printing, or in old comic books. They are almost cartoons, but not quite: not even the outsized Black Hat (Bettina) (2010), whose subject looks out from a wide hat and black sunglasses with scarlet lips in a slight smile, as if from an old cigarette ad.
There are jokes about flatness, jokes against doctrinaire abstraction, all over Katz’s work. In Ada on Red Diamond (1959) the painter’s wife and muse emerges enigmatically from a red diamond on a brown square, a background borrowed perhaps from a Russian Suprematist: she’s smiling, too, as she gives life to what would otherwise be an empty frame. Red Sails (1958), a collage of colored paper, could be an abstract experiment with asymmetrical fields of two colors, juniper on tangerine, except for the tiny red triangles in the middle: they’re sails, so that orange-red field must be a sea.