Older conventions of representational painting appear, too, and Katz takes them seriously: full-length portraits, head studies and profiles, boating scenes, cloud studies like John Constable’s, even an odalisque. Recent landscapes and seascapes invoke East Asian practice, using single brushstrokes to connote harmony as well as immediacy: the whitecaps in Grey Marine (2000) come close to calligraphy. Katz gets compared at times to Pierre Bonnard, for his colors (bright orange! bright green!), and for those portraits of his wife. Whether she’s facing out at us, just head and shoulders, or in a bathing suit, the paintings show respect: it looks as if she has chosen to be there. Bonnard also stands behind some of Katz’s flowers, whose red-orange and bright-yellow petals curl in close-up views like enormous match flames.
Katz’s people and places seem content with the present moment; they are not likely to lose themselves in memories. “The real excitement in art,” Katz has written, “is somehow being in the contemporary world.” He shared this desire to be absolutely contemporary with his poet friends of four and five decades ago. Katz painted or drew O’Hara several times — “O’Hara is my hero,” he once said; there’s a fine double portrait with Bill Berkson where both poets appear as uniformed sailors, with come-hither looks — but none of those portraits has made it to St Ives, where the selection concentrates on land- and seascapes, outdoor portraits and pictures of Maine. We do, though, get one full-length portrait of Schuyler, the subtlest and most musical of the New York school poets, slightly lost and lonely in his drab black suit.
Besides easel paintings and prints, Katz became famous during the 1960s for flat, life-sized, painted figures made out of plywood or aluminum, which stand on the floor like genuine people, or sculptures: they are not quite sculpture, but “flat” paintings you can walk all the way around. These works suggest the relative “flatness” of real people’s real identities, the way that we fit our acquaintances into types, and the pseudo-acquaintance we have with celebrities: we know about them, but we don’t know them for real, we can’t know what goes on inside.
Such flat people, easy to meet but quite hard to know well, reappear in Katz’s paintings of multiple, repeated figures: his series of bathers, whose gaudy caps look like glass beads, or the six women (one woman six times?) in The Black Dress (1960). Three have the same skeptical expression; one frowns, her brow creased. Behind the women, Katz has placed a picture of a picture — his portrait of Schuyler: none of the women is looking at it. It’s a rare note of frustration.
As Katz’s paintings got bigger, the people in them — when they had people in them — got odder, though they were still having fun, still hard to get to know. Five people on the beach in Round Hill (1977) look past one another, away from one another, through sunglasses or half-closed eyes. One of them, sprawled on one elbow, reads Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s most cynical play. Haute bourgeois relaxation there seems hollow, but elsewhere it’s attractive. In Isleboro Ferry Slip (1976), almost 2m2, a young man and a young androgynous figure stride forward across a pier, their backs to the sea. Wind plays with their hair, and both seem to look for us; one scowls, one smiles, as if they were trying to star in two different films.