Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Master of the Cool Pose

It's easy for a good critic to perceive what is obvious about an artist's sensibility from first glance. But what about when you take a longer gaze in order to get beneath the painter's pose? Amanda Shubert, in her fascinating and penetrating review of Alex Katz's work in Critics at Large, discovers what she calls "a man with an unquenchable thirst for the substance of beauty, vitality and allure..."

Beyond the Pose: Alex Katz Prints at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

"Self-Portrait," Alex Katz, 1978. Aquatint. 
Alex Katz is probably best known as the master of the cool pose.  His close-cropped portraits of family and friends, with their bright, flat hues and glints of sunlight, tap into the glamorous simplicity of billboard advertisements and the allure of movie stills, both of which were aggressively visible when Katz burst onto the New York art scene in the early 1960s. Alex Katz Prints at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, jointly organized with Vienna’s Albertina and on view through July 29, opens with a witty self-portrait in which the artist appears in a snappy white jacket like a Hollywood movie star sporting one of those vague, effortless million dollar smiles.  The thing is, when you get close to the prints, you don’t see the master of cool at all: you see a man with an unquenchable thirst for the substance of beauty, vitality and allure that realistic images can both fleetingly disclose and at the same time never quite contain.  The delicious contradiction of his work – intimacy and impersonality, quietism and desire – is all there in the sensuality of his technique, and the MFA’s enjoyably overstuffed retrospective allows you to get a glimpse of the dynamic fusion within the cool, deliberate Pop Art style. (No reproduction will show it to you in quite this way.)  The disappointment is that beyond putting the art on the walls the curators don’t give you much to go on in looking beyond the surface.
Most of the exhibition is given to Katz’s portraiture, almost always of family and friends, and most frequently of his wife, Ada Katz.  The first gallery features the sumptuous Reclining Figure/Indian Blanket, a 1987 aquatint that depicts Ada in repose, sunbathing against a blanket with a vibrant pattern of black, white and red triangles. The dots of white against her luscious red lips have the graphic punch of a Roy Lichtenstein painting, but the bold shapes with their sense of latent abstraction also have a soft suppleness. The image seems to be dissolving into sunlight, the ripples of light and shadow against Ada’s white shirt as delicate as the wings of small birds. 

"January 7," 1993. Aquatint.

In portraits like these, you see Katz’s appetite for materials – for the way skin or fabric is touched by the sun, and how that light can wash out fine details so that what we see resolves itself to an underlying abstraction, patterns and shapes.  In others, he’s drawing our attention to the sensuousness of his own materials, the paper and ink, and the varying qualities he can draw from them in a single print.  From a distance, the bold colors and forms of his prints look monolithic, like posters, but when you get close your eye registers subtle textures and tones, the way he can pull blues, browns and greys out of black (Black Scarf, 1996), layer red on red like Mark Rothko to a similarly charged emotional effect (The Red Coat, 1983).  January 7 (1993), another aquatint, depicts Ada on a walk in snowy woods.  The bare trees in the background have the brushy look of monotype printing and the calligraphic economy of a Japanese scroll, while the vibrant mauve of Ada’s winter hat falls crisp, flat and bright.

Andy Warhol embodied the American Pop Art vision, turning mass production into a style as well as a subject through his archly repetitious screenprints.  Katz’s paintings and prints find a surprising quality in repetition, a depth of feeling that goes far beyond commenting on the ubiquity of visual culture.  There’s an Impressionist dimension to Katz’s impulse to record and re-record certain people and places or moments in time, as though repetition were a form of heightened attention, not a symptom of distraction, a way of seeking to make new of everyday things.  (It’s a conceptual link more than a stylistic one, although the magnificent series of four lithographs Night: William Dunas Dance / Pamela (1983) that anatomizes the sequences of a dance step owes something to Edgar Degas, and Song (1980-81), a scene of three women at the piano, quotes the nineteenth century music room genre scenes of American Impressionists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler.)  Katz’s Pop Art and Impressionism also share the common influence of Japanese woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e, which transformed modern art once Japan opened up trade routes with the west in the mid-nineteenth century.  Like the ‘Floating World’ (ukiyo) of Japanese prints, with their sumptuous geishas and dazzling but delicate landscapes, Katz’s work gestures to a reality of ephemeral beauty and pleasure.
from "Twilight," 1978. Set of 3 color screenprints. 

Would that the exhibition drew our attention to these rich stylistic allusions.  Instead, the gallery texts for Alex Katz Prints are so generalized and repetitive, even for a retrospective, they come across as opaque.  There’s no mention of the voracious plurality of artistic influences in Katz’s work – the association between his dancers and Degas’, or the technical effects borrowed from Japanese woodblock prints and scrolls, or Katz’s reverence for Abstract Expressionist artists like Jackson Pollock working in a radically different tenor and style.  (“When I first saw Pollock, I realized he had sensation, energy and light,” Katz wrote, “and it seemed much more like the motif I was painting than my paintings.”)

"The Red Coat," 1983. Screenprint
Equally frustrating are the object labels, which provide no information on how or where the prints were made. I know the difference between an aquatint and a lithograph, but I’m willing to bet most viewers don’t; and I know just enough about printmaking to tell that as a technician Katz is wizardly in the stunning range of effects he can achieve from different techniques and the way he can discipline them into a remarkably consistent graphic style, but not enough to explain how it’s done. Prints are frequently undermined in major retrospectives, which tend to focus on paintings, but this is a print show and it essentially ignores all questions of media.

In this way, the exhibition seems designed with the expectation that you won’t look closely. It’s too bad, because with the rich collection here the exhibition has the opportunity to highlight the warm spot within the cool affect, that tantalizing paradox at the heart of Katz’s work. He’s not an artist with a singular vision: the cool stillness of his prints belies restless contradictions. Katz works with repetition to defy repetition, as though he is seeking, by hewing to the same subjects, to be surprised both artistically and emotionally by what he knows most intimately. He moves within the familiar to find something beyond familiarity: a kind of modern alienation that lurks within the familiar, yes, but more importantly the sense of wonder that arises when we realize that the people we know best still hold back something we can’t quite get to. The closer you get to the prints, the clearer it becomes that the work exemplifies Virginia Woolf’s credo in To the Lighthouse that “nothing is just one thing.” The exhibition doesn’t support that kind of multiplicity in the work, but it doesn’t betray the artist so much as the viewers, who aren’t trusted to stand still long enough to see more than one thing at a time. 

- originally published on July 10, 2012 in Critics at Large.

 Amanda Shubert is a founding editor of Full Stop, an online journal of literature and culture. She works at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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