Thank Heaven for Little Pictures
Alex Katz: Small Paintings
Whitney Museum of American Art 945 Madison Avenue
Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris 120 Park Avenue
Alex Katz: The Woodcuts and Linocuts
Peter Blum 99 Wooster
Alex Katz: Large Paintings
PaceWildenstein 534 West 25th Street
Gavin Brown’s Enterprise 436 W 15th St
Max Protetch 511 West 22nd Street
Gorney Bravin & Lee 534 West 26th Street
After looking at Alex Katz, the world begins to look like a Katz painting. Life imitates art, with good taste for once. A while ago I was at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, to see Alex Katz: Small Paintings, the show currently bifurcated between the Whitney’s uptown premises and their room at the Philip Morris Building. Back in early summer it was at its originating venue, the Addison Gallery of American Art, at the Phillips. Strolling around the campus of this exclusive prep school, with its fine colonial architecture, the sumptuous brick and white boards against green lawns and blue sky, I was in a WASP idyll. Only a Samuel Barber soundtrack was needed to complete the picture. But post-Katz the scene was soon inflected with New York edge. Bold reductions, cropping, and jazzy juxtapositions suggested themselves. A group of kids was engrossed in a team game of Frisbee. A young black woman among otherwise all-male all-white company particularly shone (or at least drew my attention). Inevitably, she brought to mind His Behind the Back Pass 1978, Katz’s picture of his son Vincent as a latter-day, all-American discus thrower. Frisbee is the perfect Katzian motif, a game at once balletic and robust, flippant (you literally throw it away) and yet Zen-like in its focus. Frisbee demands concentrated skill but must be carried off with suave nonchalance. Something hot done in a cool way.
Right now’s New York is friendly to Katz lovers. Besides the Whitney double-decker, there’s The Woodcuts and Linocuts, organized by Colby College Museum of Art, at the Peter Blum Gallery; there was a gem of a show of early works at Robert Miller; and to counterbalance the small paintings, there’s Big Paintings, a show of new work at PaceWildenstein, at their new Chelsea barn. “Katz” and “Big” have been in danger of becoming synonyms in recent years; thus a focus on small offers a novel glance at this muralist of cool. The small pictures tend to be more painterly, with greater evidence of the brush and the hand behind it. And ultimately, in a way, of the eye behind the hand, too, because if big represents synthesis and resolution, small intimates the perceptual, the initial rapport with the observed world. While the big Katz stretches credibility by doing perverse things with form, the small Katz, quirky in less calculated ways, actually enhances a sense of actuality. The cool and resolved big contrasts with the warm and experimental small. Small is comparatively quick, impatient, impressionistic, it is also more intent on confronting perceptual problems than big, so there is greater involvedness and naturalistic (rather than stylized) awkwardness.
Several images in the Addison’s version of Small Paintings now find themselves in PaceWildenstein’s Big Paintings. These are among the ten portraits that are studies for the monumental ten by twenty foot Ada’s Garden 2000. The proximity of big and small on adjacent walls sheds light on the perceptual-synthetic dualism in Katz. The small studies really glow, almost literally in the way the figures are haloed by pentimenti. The black backgrounds, animatedly brushy at the reduced scale, are evened out into sheer expanses of matt blackness, to complement the lush resolve of opened-out forms. What really happens, of course, between the perceptual small and the synthetic big is that awkwardness is transferred from the artist’s brush to the viewer’s eye. The small Vincent is an unmistakable likeness of his son even at thirty feet; telltale signs like a gentle snarl and jutting of jaw are keenly observed. But writ large, rather than being retained through some caricatural mechanism they are jettisoned in favor of generalization. The individual slinks away into the crowd.
Decorative flatness and convincing realist space have often dueled before in Alex Katz images, but in Carver’s Corner - to my mind the most audacious painting in his new show – the artist ups the ante. In the right hand scene in this divided composition, the sky and treetops at the top “ground” the image while the flat, green non-space below is an abstraction within which, nonetheless “grounded” and convincingly lit figures are positioned. Somehow, the picture obliges us to submit to its own logic.
Several shows by other artists about town right now [actually all three shows plusBig Paintings ended the day of publication, for which apologies to reader and author alike- Ed.] give one cause to celebrate paintings one can slip into a pocketbook (or at least a backpack). The cynic might say this is a recession market’s “behind the back pass”, tempting tidbits for the Wall Street weary. Three shows are especially deserving of attention, in my opinion, and each says something specific about scale.
Thomas Nozkowski has an uncanny ability to seem utterly preoccupied by form while quietly attending to style. His small paintings contrast, strategically, with Katz’s in a crucial regard. In Katz, one could say that the small works are paintings, the big pictures. By this I mean that while the small emphasize their own making, their matière, the bigger ones are machines, cinematic and transparent. Nozkowski habitually paints small, and professes to have done so from early in his career for political reasons (not wanting to decorate bank lobbies but to make works his peers could afford). But it seems to me there is a more aesthetically interesting reason for his scale, which is where style over form comes into play. All the while that he uses organic shapes, patterns, textures, these relate to observed phenomena in the real world. They may to some extent have been existentially discovered in the painting process, but thanks to their diminutive scale, they have the energy of depiction. In this sense, they are post-abstract. They retain what they want, lexiconically, from the achievements of modernist abstraction, but refer back to an older, (old-masterly) tradition of picture making that predates any sense of “getting lost” in the painting process, in the way described (and exemplified) by Jackson Pollock. The paradox in Nozkowski is that precisely because of their reticence – they can have a held back, cramped, even anal execution sometimes – they are all the more lithe and inventive. Their authenticity arises from being stylistically self-conscious.
There is a similar “authentic despite” quality to Elizabeth Peyton, the Watteau of blah. Katz and Hockney are her most conspicuous contemporary artistic heroes, choices, when they were made a decade or so ago, that were almost poignantly retro in themselves. I mention Watteau because of an insouciant whimsicality underpinned by psychological substance. Another old master she recalls in this respect is Forain. It’s in drawing technique, specifically, that she resembles Hockney, whereas the kinship with Katz mostly has to do with brinkmanship. She constantly bids high in her wagers against naffness. In her case, the traffic between the synthetic and the perceptual runs in the opposite direction from Katz (or Nozkowski). With Peyton, falsity and mediation are the sine qua non alike of source and style: she starts with media images of pop stars and House of Windsor princelings, or with snapshots of downtown boho friends posing so nonchalantly they might as well be minor celebrities. Her painterly style proceeds to flirt rampantly with the fashion plate, as Katz seems to with the billboard and the cartoon. What makes her highly wrought images so tantalizing, in my opinion, is the exquisite correlation between emotional attitude and painterly investment. In Katz, a twist of poignancy gives edge to his high jinks with style. In Peyton, where sloppiness and feyness characterize so perfectly an alienated, narcissistic longing, it’s not a twist but the whole fruit that is thrown in.
My only problem with Peyton’s paintings is that I feel I’m on a perpetual first date. Nice feeling, but will this go anywhere? I’m sorry to keep comparing everyone to Katz but seeing his latest works at PaceWildenstein with a small display of gems from the 1950s a block away, at Robert Miller, really brought home the extraordinary phenomenon of an artist virtually arriving on the scene with a fully formed, internally coherent, personal language which nonetheless had within it phenomenal space for growth, change, challenge. Peyton’s painterly touch is so loaded with emotional implication as to be circumscribed by it as well. When, as recently, she attempts to go bigger she gains little. It is as if her touch is good for intimation only, which is a bit of a tease. Having said that, Paradis (Kirsty) 2001, gives some grounds for hope, with its ethereal opening up of forms amid the breathing space around the brushmarks. But comparison of painted things within the painting is a sad give away of the difference between a master and an acolyte. The tattoo in Ben Drawing 2001 is feeble (unlike Ben’s actual drawing, which is perfect). In Katz, drawn or painted things in the real world – markings on a canoe, lipstick or eye shadow on a face, fabric designs – masterfully accentuate the play of artifice and reality. They also underpin the self-containment of his painted vision, its internal logic: the way painted things are contiguous with his handwriting while seamless with the world. But perhaps such technical issues come down to time as much as talent. Peyton gives us cause for great hope. As Bad Painting goes, she is as good as it gets.
In this feast of small painters, we leave James Siena for dessert (crème brulée, if an awful pun on his name can be forgiven). Entering the private view of his current show at Gorney Bravin & Lee, an artist friend more familiar with his oeuvre exclaimed, “These are murals by James’s standard!” At around 19 by 15 inches, on average, these are apparently a big step up for an artist whose exquisite meditations on the decorative veer towards the microscopic. But none of this should consign his vision to any category of slightness. Evoking such disparate associations (off the top of my head) as African textiles, Gustav Klimt, Adolph Gottlieb’s pictographs, Bridget Riley’s swirls, Moghul miniatures, the nutty visions of Friedensreich Huntertwasser, tantric art, Escher drawings, Aztec architecture, Keith Haring, Yayoi Kusama, and Maori tattoos they absorb energies from these sources without being retro or referential. They are self-contained aesthetic experiences. If in any sense they are depictive then they depict the universe in a grain of sand. Coming at the them for a second visit after looking at Elizabeth Peyton I was struck by an unexpected commonality between her camp smudges of lipstick and the way traces of pink track the blue lines in Siena’s Blue Corner Painting 2001. The DNA of small painting throws up unlikely family connections. How happy under the lens of a Chelsea afternoon to discover such siblings under the skin.