Like an acquaintance you can’t stand at first (perhaps they seem a bit cold and harsh?) who becomes a friend—or even a lover…on a snowy day in a Soho gallery, nobody else was there, I saw a series of snowy landscapes and fell in love. And not only with the landscapes, with the portraits, too—I grasped what Katz was doing.
(Those paintings are not in this show, but I’ll put one below.)
It’s important to start at the bottom of the slope and look carefully at the early paintings like Pink Sky to understand Katz’s achievement. Unremarkable, but seen in the light of the later work, you can already see his desire to say more with less. Economy will become one of the most striking elements of his work. Blocks of color and a minimum number of brushstrokes—over the course of his career those brushstrokes become more and more refined and powerful.
What follows are a series of terrible portraits in which the figures have no relationship to the ground and the facial features are amateurish and awkward. Rudy and Edith is one of the best of them; Katz has chosen one of his principal subject matters, his friends, which makes sense because our friends are more beautiful and interesting than other people, right? He has also begun to experiment with blocks of color and focusing in.
Ada Ada and suddenly there is a dynamic to the picture. It is created by the figures being almost but not quite centered and almost but not quite the same. My eyes keep flicking back and forth to check on that.I’ll just say now that the standing two dimensional portraits and the cut-up portraits don’t work at all, though I admire the sheer breadth of his experimentation. I feel grateful to the curators and to him for including it.
But Katz’s real genius lies in the the organization of the picture plane and, looking at the earlier work, I did not see that coming.
The first great painting in the show is Passing. There’s something very traditional in the fact that it is a self-portrait; still lives and self-portraits are the laboratory of painting. The subtlety of the color wasn’t there before and Katz has connected his work to the movies: the close-up, the brilliant fashion photography of William Klein, Irving Penn—the high style of the 60s. But the depth of feeling is altogether different than a movie still or a fashion shot.
The most wonderful moment in the show is that the sketch for Yvonne was included with a description of how it was turned into the final painting. A rather ordinary sketch really, but Katz makes a series of drawings and plans in order to execute it in one day. It is very interesting to look at Yvonne and try to figure out how. With oil paint! What series of moves in painting the hair for example, finishing with the highlights, and also the wispy interaction at the edge of the hat?
This must be what gives the painting its mixture of calculation and spontaneity. Those two qualities do not have to be in conflict, I see that now—they somehow add up to this portrait of lovely, heartbreaking vulnerability.
1967 was a very good year and I am torn between showing Ted Berrigan and Ada and Vincent—I don’t want to ruin the show for you.
The subtle color differences between the faces in Ada and Vincent decides me. Not all of Katz’s groups of figures inhabit the same space—not that they have to—but here, although their images are flattened, almost as if they have been captured by a zoom lens, they are connected because Vincent is in Ada’s shadow. He is fragile and she is strong, they both seem to be looking into the future; it is actually a Madonna and child.
The minimal landscape, the way the image is cropped by the frame, her mouth is concealed by the top of his head—it is fascinating.
There is a lot to see but I’ll end with Crosslight. Katz has transformed a sketch made during the day into a forest at night. I found it very moving that he picked this subject at age 95. A painter deeply understanding that all that we see is reflected light and that there are mysteries in the darkness.
A couple of notes:
I was talking to some other artists and a statement was made that Katz’s work should be seen as a whole and it would be wrong to call it “uneven.”
Isn’t there some “middle way”?
There’s no glory for an artist in being “even” and a lot to be said for trying hard enough to fail sometimes.