The word barely makes sense anymore, devoured by the indiscriminate and parodic use that has been made of it. In its time and place, both modern, it pointed to the elusive, half-imaginary flash that radiates from a person, a place or an object, distinguishing them from the massive industrial world. This face-to-face and instantaneous dimension —something that has to do with time— is typical of Alex Katz’s paintings. Its quality is physical, aesthetic. In 1983, the choreographer Paul Taylor, famous for introducing the most banal rhythms and forms of today into the historical rigidity of classical dance, staged sunset, with music by Edward Elgar and sets and costumes by Katz. In one photo, the painter appears with a brush at the ready, as long as a broom, on the curtain unfolded on the floor. Seeing it, it is inevitable to remember Jackson Pollock splashing paint on his canvases, immersed in them, enveloped by them. Point out the huge differences between the two, too.
Katz is now 95 years old. He continues to paint, in the winter on Long Island and in the summer in Maine. He was never outspoken, but his disdain for one and the other —and, above all, for the discursive murga that dominates contemporary art— has long reached a proud boast. His way of painting always had to be asserted against the prevailing wind and tide. First, the abstract expressionists of the fifties; Pollock, especially. His painting grew by measuring itself against colossal formats, the enveloping sensation of great abstraction, which he certainly admired. Then, again, against the pop of Lichtenstein and Warhol. The relationship between painting and immediate reality —that living present of time so frequent in his statements, as the artistic director of the Thyssen, Guillermo Solana, has recalled— was once again at stake.
Katz incorporated abstract colossalism and the graphic synthesis of street poster art into his realistic paintings. Thus he was eliminating, like Hemingway, everything informative about the scenes and portraits of him, until he coined an art of the surface of life
Those successful artists, who were no longer painters, collected images to play with them conceptually. But Katz was willing to do the hard part: incorporate abstract colossalism into his realistic paintings on the one hand, and the graphic synthesis of street poster art on the other. Thus he was eliminating, like Hemingway, everything informative in his scenes and portraits, until he coined an art of the surface of life, of his appearance, each time more normal, duller and more magnetic. It is not strange that a theatrical curtain served as a model for his purposes: the curtain is not a window that cuts out the space, but an environment that invites you to pass through. The same thing happened with the gigantic panels of Times Square, on which their women’s faces were enlarged to cinematographic scale in the late seventies.
But that present of time that Katz usually talks about is not philosophical, it is not about that constant actuality of the metaphysical being that Derrida criticized, but rather about its opposite: the elusive brilliance of the moment that passes, its memorable trail. It is the present of fashion and advertising — also Alison Lurie, who shared friends with Katz, wrote The Language of Clothes—: a look unloaded from the weight of History, and from the plot of any story. The dream of a painless life. For this reason, Katz’s painting continues to have to overcome the refraction of an official art world now dominated by interpretation and content. Moral preachers cry out at the trace of sin: superficiality, indolence, rich women with long necks, wearing dark glasses, their aura. The verses of Frank O’Hara, an intellectual mainstay of the time Katz forged his style, also chased that truth from the surface. In the catalog of the first major Spanish exhibition dedicated to the painter, at the IVAM in 1996, the antecedent of this one that now summarizes his repertoire well, Kevin Power composed a beautiful anthology of the New York School —we see today the wonderful portrait of Ted Berrigan— . Both exhibitions were the idea of Tomás Llorens, to whom the Thyssen dedicates its.
Even so, the most exact correlate of his painting could be found in certain postmodern North American novelists. In a book dedicated to Katz, Ann Beattie spoke of the bit of existential distress that, despite everything, arises from the supposedly flat and light images of him (he denied it). More than any other, a phrase from James Salter could be the perfect lyric for this music. In painting, literary accuracy becomes visual synthesis; the ellipsis, in sequence detached from any narration. The parties sophisticated photographers and editors. The frieze of windows lit up in the high night of Manhattan. The smoothness of the summer light on the water, between the dunes. The anguish of the expressionist wrinkles, now silenced under the big black glasses and the smoothness of the makeup.
‘Alex Katz’. Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Madrid. Until September 11.
You can follow BABELIA on Facebook Y Twitteror sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter.
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits