Alex Katz has been the darling of the New York painting world since his work first emerged in the 1960s. His early, matter-of-fact, painting of American life captured the transient, floating scenes of East coast bohemian, creative and intellectual life; a project that Katz continues to this day. The National Portrait Gallery presents a small and intimate retrospective of Katz’s portrait work to date.
Upon entering the galleries one mingles with Katz’s three-dimensional work One Flight Up (1968). It consists of 31 portraits on aluminium, cut out and mounted together. Ambulating the piece is rather like being on the fringes of a New York party, you see roll necked, bespectacled intellectuals and creatives frozen in perfect repose. When Katz was painting this piece he felt as he says, “like a casting director” trying to work out who would fit into the scene. Among the collected guests are painters Philip Pearlstein and Rodrigo Moynihan, poet John Ashbery and Katz’s wife, Ada, a perennial subject for him. These fresh and brightly coloured images show nothing of the thirty-two year gap between their creation and the present day.
Like many other pop artists of the time it was surface that engaged Katz. For Pollock or Dekooning or Rothko painting may have been an intellectual battle or existential necessity but Katz learnt to employ the same speed of execution and “psychological”, painterly gesture in the rendering of New York’s glitterati. “ I try to always paint in the present tense” says Katz “If you paint stories you’re painting in the past tense”.
In an accompanying room hang three large portraits each titled with the names of their sitters – Vincent, Edwin and Ada. What is extraordinary about these works is that their production ranges over 37 years (the earliest is painted in 1972 and the most recent in 2009) and yet the differences in their execution and surface are imperceptible. It is obvious that for Katz the “present tense” is the same today as it was 30 years ago and that portraiture is an exercise about colour, about painting and about canvas first and foremost and that will never change.
Katz claims that he has had more bad reviews than any other painter. A view which he seems to be a hangover from a time when figurative painting was a shocking thing to do during the predominance of expressionist and minimalist art in the late 1960s. His work, in truth, is difficult not to like. For an urban, advertising-exposed audience they are clean, graphic, saturated and to this day they possess the aura of cool. His recent portraits are proof of this: Within the main body of the Portrait Gallery one can find Katz’s new portrait of the American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, without her trademark sunglasses. The marigold background is deep and saturated, enough to sate the viewer without the main event of the portrait ever needing to take place. Whatever one may think of the achingly cool subject matter Katz adopts there is always something to be found in the beguiling aesthetic and colour choices that prevail over the work.
-- Mike Tuck
All images courtesy the artist and The National Portrait Gallery
Images: One Flight Up, 1968 by Alex Katz © Alex Katz courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery, Edwin, 1972 by Alex Katz © Alex Katz courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery, Anna Wintour, 2009 by Alex Katz © Alex Katz courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery