Style and Substance: The Work of Alex Katz

By Larissa Pham, CC '14

This spring, walking down Edgewood Avenue on a day where the light is just right, you might think you’ve caught a glimpse of two men in suits, standing impassive in the glassy gallery space of 36 Edgewood. But—though the silhouettes work perfectly, cut life size and dynamic in their posture—it’s an illusion. You’ve just seen the work of Alex Katz, whose paintings are currently on display in the show “Katz x Katz” until March 10th.

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One of the forerunners of the Pop Art movement, and a major figure in the international art world today, Katz has a body of work that spans six decades: the entire breadth of which is currently up at Yale’s 36 Edgewood gallery space. Katz’s work was celebrated and discussed in depth in a daylong event this Saturday that featured two panel discussions, moderated by Robert Storr and featuring a variety of creatives and critics, including art historians Irving Sandler and Kenneth Silver; poets Vincent Katz, Carter Ratcliff, and Bob Holman; and curator Jennifer Gross and artist David Salle.

The interdisciplinary approach to the panel meant that Katz’s distinctive oeuvre could be examined from all angles, with each panelist giving their own take on Katz’s work and what it could mean on both an individual, artistic level, as well as a broader and more universal method of creation. Katz’s paintings are marked by an extreme stylized, almost graphic look—he wastes no brush marks in the thin application of paint, and his choices of color are selective and efficient. One base shade for the skin tone, and gradients applied according to the quality of light: “His brush finds the image the way a bat finds the ball,” David Salle remarked, as one way of describing Katz’s sharp style, but went on to discuss how Katz’s work intersects with issues facing observational painting today, particularly regarding style.

“Alex talks a lot about catching the instant,” Vincent Katz said. He likened Alex Katz’s style to writing a poem, abbreviating the appearance of something to represent it in a certain manner. In this way, images of people and things almost act as “images of images”—they are the subject, but they are also a very specific, very intentional facet of that subject. The painted silhouettes in the gallery of 36 Edgewood are emblematic of this aspect of Katz’s style. Double-sided, the standing cutout seems to feature two men standing back to back, with one facing forward and the other turned round towards the other side. The men are in suits, and painted with the same spare quality Katz gives all his recent work. Yet walk around the piece and, expecting the image to be flipped, it’s revealed that one of the men has no front side or face, just the same serenely painted hair and jacket. Katz creates a stylish impossibility, generating a quiet, subtle surprise that makes us look closer.