|"Self-Portrait," Alex Katz, 1978. Aquatint. |
|"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|
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.
– 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.