Looking at art (March) no.3: Alex Katz: 45 Years of Portraits at Galerie Ropac Pantin.
Madame Art World Ed and I had a bit of a debate about Alex Katz last week. I described him as “easy to like”, while she described him – I seem to remember – as “meh”.
Some critics certainly do have a degree of snobbishness towards Katz’s work: he’s prolific, easy on the eye, paints beautiful people leading privileged lives, and – cough – is lauded in the fashion world. Fashion peeps love him for all of the above reasons, plus the fact that he has painted Kate Moss and Christy Turlington. And modelled for J.Crew! Suzy Menkes, who has just joined Condé Nast as International Vogue Editor, contributed an essay for the catalogue of the current exhibition.
Reviewing a 2012 Katz show at Tate St Ives for The Telegraph, Mark Hudson wrote: “These apparently bland, yet undeniably stylish images seem quintessentially American in both their subject matter and appeal. In the absence of a decent-sized exhibition in this country, it’s been difficult to tell if Katz’s paintings maintain an ironic distance from their subject matter or are simply showing Americans an aspirational world they would like to inhabit – a sort of fine-art version of preppy leisure wear.”
Jackie Wullschlager, reporting on the same exhibition for The Financial Times, wrote: “American painting is about surface, European painting is about depth. Pioneering postwar figures – Pollock and Warhol, Bacon and Freud – confirmed the truth of that cliché. But the two most interesting American painters of the end of the 20th century, who survived into the 21st to make radical, exhilarating late work, each built a unique oeuvre by collapsing that difference. Both Cy Twombly and 84-year-old Alex Katz combine the language of American abstraction with a European inflection… In Katz’s [case] the impulse of plein air painting of light and sea, and an engagement with society at play, alluding to Monet, Bonnard and Matisse.”
My personal take on Katz is none of the above. The argument that American painting is “about” surface implies that “surface” is the point of the art. But clearly it’s not. No more than beautiful cinematography is the point of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, or gorgeous set design is the point of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, or being young and dangerously bored is the point of Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (the book, not the movie.)
Katz’s blandly attractive cast of characters is reminiscent of Tina Barney’s photographs documenting her rich, privileged family and social circle. You know they “have it all” but you know they ain’t happy. This message is clear in Barney’s images because nowadays we are used to reading layers of meaning into photography. Reviewing Tina Barney’s work for The New York Times way back in 1990, Michael Brenson wrote: “The kind of social tableau of modern life that was essentially brought into art by Manet and Degas is now widely perceived as the domain of photography… For many people this subject matter can now only be dealt with convincingly in photographs.”
Which is perhaps why people tend to take Alex Katz at (sur)face value, which means your like or dislike for him depends on your like or dislike of his subject matter.
Whatever. The show looks great. Catch it at Galerie Ropac Pantin between now and July 12th.