Nearly forty years after Alex Katz’s last New York retrospective, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has mounted Alex Katz: Gathering, a career survey encompassing eight decades of the nonagenarian artist’s masterful production. To mark the occasion, Artforum invited four painters—Sam McKinniss, Amy Sillman, Jamian Juliano-Villani, and David Salle—to reflect on the legacy of this unflagging paragon of technique and style.
IN LATE OCTOBER, on the opening night of the Alex Katz retrospective at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, crowds of people in a party mood lined the spiral ramp from the ground-floor rotunda all the way to the uppermost skylight. This in itself is not so unusual—just about any opening at a major New York museum tends to bring out the scenesters. What happened next, however, is less common. Toward the end of the night, as the artist, who at ninety-five is seemingly immune to the depredations of advanced age, and who that evening was resplendent in a cream-colored suit and gold tie, made his way across the packed rotunda to the revolving doors, the entire museum erupted in an ovation that continued even after Katz reached a waiting car. I’ve never witnessed anything like it. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of choreographed applause orgies at seated dinners after speeches or other ritualistic gestures, but never anything quite like this purely spontaneous outpouring of appreciation—of love, really. Has there ever been a retrospective in our city so long awaited and so richly deserved?
A few days after the opening, I phoned Alex to see how he was feeling.
“Are you tired of being lionized yet?”
There has been much grumbling over the decades about how the Guggenheim, with its sloped floors, relatively low ceilings, and shallow viewing distances, is bad for painting. Not true. For paintings of a certain size and scale, I can’t think of any place in New York that’s more advantageous. Wright’s architecture is like a dosing machine, squeezing out pictures, one after another, as if from a celestial eyedropper. And the basic structural idea of the museum—a continuous ascending spiral along which discrete bays are arrayed—is designed to showcase linear progression. With an artist like Katz, where eight decades of pictorial development proceed with great forward motion, the Guggenheim is an accelerator and a multiplier. At the same time, the individual bays encourage engagement with single pictures or pairs of paintings, and they enable vivid comparisons between pictures, so that curatorial points about the ways ideas jump between paintings, often from rough, smaller studies to large-scale refinements, can be made in accurate visual terms. Part of the pleasure in the Katz show is in seeing how the various phases of the work all connect, how one thing grows out of another and then morphs into something else again, and how all of it is the product of a fiercely observant intelligence that asks, over and over, What is the essence of a picture, what holds it together, and what opportunities are presented by an image or scene?
Perhaps it’s generational, or maybe it was a gender thing—something that was expected of boys—but there used to be a value in understanding how things were done, how things worked on a physical level. Call it the sensuosity of competence raised to an aesthetic level. James Salter, who was an almost exact contemporary of Katz’s, wrote about it often—of his admiration for men who knew how to do things, how to cut down a tree for firewood, fix a car, knot a rope, paint a house. This idea of competence does a lot to ground you in the world. It’s connected to efficiency—to not expending excess energy. As such, it’s related to good design and aesthetic common sense. Seeing something well executed is an aesthetic pleasure. From what Katz has said, his father was one of those men who knew the best way to do everything, and that idea of life was passed on, from father to son. Not knowing how to do something was considered unmanly, like not being able to keep one’s house in order. One of Katz’s great achievements has been to apply that ideal to New York School painting. This is a more unlikely amalgamation than it may first appear, for the following reason. Second-generation New York School painting was an existential project that said, in essence, You are what you do. The style, or look, of it existed within an idea of painting as process, with the painter burrowing his or her way, termite-like, through the guts and sinews of the painting. A painting would typically be started with little or no idea how it would end up. There was a lot of jazzed-up kinetic energy going around. Paintings were overwrought even when they were cool. That was never Katz’s beat. He is an analytic painter; his job is to size up the work at hand and go about it in the most pared-down, efficient, and decisive way. This puts a premium on technique, on skill. Of course, one’s technique has to be in alignment with a worldview, a vision of painting. They are not, in fact, separable.
The look of Katz’s painting, his famous style, is grounded in his technique, in what he can do with a brush. That brush has had a lot of practice, but its decisive eloquence was there pretty much from the beginning.
There has been a great deal of confusion, going back fifty years or more, about the relationship between talent, skill, and ideas, with skill often being kicked to the curb. I once got into an argument with a graduate student who claimed not to believe in talent, and who considered skill unimportant, something that anyone could manifest at any time. There might even be an app for it on your phone. I asked him if he did not consider being able to throw a fifty-yard touchdown pass while dodging the defensive line a talent. “No, just skill.” Maybe you should try it? But attitudes have changed considerably since that encounter with the de-skilling mind. Younger artists today are keenly aware of what technique brings to the party. Craft no longer has to be defended, and there’s a recognition that where the brush (or whatever tool) hits the canvas is where it all happens. This generational shift actually makes the timing of the Katz show propitious.
The Katz exhibition is rewarding on many levels; it affords intense pleasures, visually, intellectually, and emotionally. The scope and breadth of the show are enormous, expansive, with a deeply satisfying competence at every scale, from the grand to the intimate. If the show does nothing else, I hope that it will encourage younger artists, or artists of any age, to continue to think about the role in painting of talent and skill, and about the relationship between painting and ideas.
David Salle is a New York–based artist.