On a visit to Alex Katz’s summer studio in Maine a few years ago, one of the many topics we discussed was the uncluttered clarity of basic living. In the early days (the late 1950s) his residence there had no electricity nor running water. Mentioning my current summer situation, off-grid in Nova Scotia, his response was, “It’s such a civilized way to live.” His rejoinder, on the surface counterintuitive, was nevertheless characteristic of how Katz sees almost everything, and especially the field-stripped morphology of his painting. He appreciates the inherent lightness of unencumbered vision. His expansive body of work, of course, can alternatively impart a feeling for the electric buzz of downtown Manhattan and the crickets of Lincolnville, Maine, yet in each instance the artist creates his own ecology of people, places, and things that proceed across his canvases and graphic works in serenely civil instants.
In this recent, 416-page volume devoted to the artist’s life as seen through his portraiture, one gets the picture that Katz’s people constitute a distinct ecosystem of social relations. While the artist himself values gestural simplicity, his portraits, taken as a whole, make up quite a complex of civil manners. What is idiosyncratic about Katz’s unpacking of that society, especially in the group and couple portraits, is how he paints his subjects as abstract surfaces, a point made very clear by Carter Ratcliff in his incisive accompanying essay.