Franklin Einspruch

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Exhibition Note: On “Alex Katz: Theater and Dance” at the Colby Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine

The New Criterion, January 2023 (read there)

On its face, the premise of “Alex Katz: Theater and Dance” sounds unpromising. The stiffness of the artist’s painted figures is a key component of his style and has been since he arrived upon it seven decades ago. (He is in his mid-nineties and still painting.) How might he handle dance, of all things?

The answer depends on whether you accept the validity of Katz’s creative project. If so, then you agree that Katz has kept the Color Field movement alive all these years in his outsize canvases and their single-hue backgrounds. The flattening of the figures arises from a formal need to integrate them with the grounds. Cropping them oddly, as Katz often does, pushes that integration further. It stops the surrounding color from operating as space or atmosphere and prevents it from having any identity except that of a wall of paint, true to the Color Field ethos. His willingness to admit fashion into his work, as well as the stylish people sporting it, transformed the tendency of Pop Art to wallow in vulgarity into something less cynical and more friendly and affirming. You accept the assertion of the renowned curator Robert Storr, who contributed a short essay to the “Theater and Dance” catalogue and consulted on the show’s installation, that Katz is “paying close attention to how things look, knowing, as he does, that rather than being superficial, appearances are the key to understanding who and what we are.”

In that case, the paintings are as appropriate as anything else in his oeuvre. A typical Katz has an aggressively simple logic of figure and background, so a scenario of costumed bodies arrayed across a bare stage plays to his strengths. The costumes themselves prove as amenable to the Katz treatment as regular clothing while offering their own formal possibilities with their improbable colors and styling. Katz’s deadpan, which is necessary to the paintings’ functioning, reigns within the rectangle. No dancer’s gesture, no matter how energetic, can defy it. In Song, Laura Dean Dance Co. from 1977, the company is standing about the stage with right arms raised, clad in rose blouses and pink pants in front of a similarly tinted and shaded background. At twelve feet wide, it’s close to life-size, and its visual impact is undeniable. Standing near it feels akin to walking through an installation.

If you don’t accept the validity of Katz’s creative project, or if like me you’ve been wavering on it for a long time, “Theater and Dance” is an uncomfortable exhibition. This viewer, at least, feels torn between sensing the works’ internal consistency and success on their own terms and noticing that the propositions in play often produce unsatisfactory results. Certain canvases big enough to tarp a roof look oddly like trifles.

This is even after discounting some personal distastes, specifically a combination of black, teal, and purple that I associate with the 1980s in a bad way, and which Katz has employed to plodding effect in a series of paintings from 2021 that dominate the opening room. I grant that they’re innovative relative to a long history of prior Katzes. He has noticed a phenomenon of stage lighting that can fill the shadow side of cross-lit faces with strange colors and has attempted to simulate it in oil, given that any such shadow in a Katz may only exist as a single mid-tone shape. Good for him for trying something new. But we don’t go to Katz to see riffs on theatrical illumination, as when Degas depicts the cabaret in soft pastels. Dancers 4 (2021) cries out for some kind of remedy, which is probably to neutralize the background with the pale aqua of the facial shadows, but that would make it not a Katz. Also in this series are some close-ups of a blue-eyed performer named Emma, whose 2020 portrait merges the shadow of her face with the grape-flavored background in an undistinguished mass. Like a bad flashback, the Eighties are exacting their revenge as the artist conducts an experiment on his own style.

I have also never been entirely convinced that Katz’s powers of observation and documentation, credited to him by Storr and many others—even critics less sympathetic to Pop such as Robert Hughes—manifest in the work except as notation. (“To doubt the ultimate value of Katz,” wrote Hughes in 1986, “might be construed as a vote... against everything that makes the arts-and-leisure section of American life such a nice place to be.”) Jocular memories of Max Headroom return upon studying the enormous (360 inches!) quintuple-double portrait of five couples, Pas de Deux (1983), evoked in particular by the ladies’ outfits. If Katz’s world can be unrelatably genteel, he has nonetheless captured its manners. But the slightest tilt of a head blows his sense of anatomy to smithereens, with eye sockets sliding to wild locations on the skull and faces sometimes going completely Picassoid. Katz has afflicted the figure in Dance 7 (2022) with a mouth shaped like that of a duck. It comes off not as deliberate Cubism but helpless discombobulation brought on by subjects that defy his usual—and, let’s admit it—limited stock of techniques for rendering people.

Hughes concluded that Katz was a poor draftsman, but the numerous study drawings in this exhibition don’t display such difficulties. Many of them, for instance the pounced cartoon from 1991 of a posed dancer, are preferable in their resolution to the paintings for which they were prepared. I believe instead that the troubles are a downside of Katz’s method. He wants the oil to look fresh. That means that he must, as much as possible, put down confident strokes of paint and leave them alone. If a face goes catawampus in the process, or a passage seems slack instead of untroubled, he regards it as meant to be, and would no more correct it than Jackson Pollock would fix one of his strands of slung enamel. More preliminary drawing on the canvas would prevent errancy in the results, but that would cause the paintings to look facile in a less interesting way. Katz’s choices, for better or worse, are attempts to protect artistic integrity.

That is the chief frustration of these works, the unimpeachable seriousness with which the artist seeks such light rewards. The light rewards accumulate, however, as Katz collaborates with the dance companies of Paul Taylor and Laura Dean and contributes to the dramas of Kenneth Koch. Katz’s practice of painting on aluminum cutouts makes obvious sense in relation to his construction of stage sets. “Theater and Dance” is an exhibition of considerable art-historical interest, allowing the viewer to glimpse a process in which the artist designs costumes for the choreographers, then paints the tableaux they enact, then bases prints on the paintings, then re-costumes the dancers in his studio for further exploration. Like a dancer in performance, he embraces his stumbles and moves through them.

Katz hit upon something that worked for him before I was born, and I’m hardly young. To this day he mines it for treasure with assiduous discipline. For that I feel nothing but respect.

Word count: 1183

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