Alex Katz found his style of painting some five decades ago; it was in every way successful, and he has stuck with it. He took cues from slightly older American figurative painters, such as Fairfield Porter and David Park, but he was bolder and more ambitious than they were. Now he occupies a similar place in American painting to Lucian Freud’s in British painting: his instantly recognisable work has become ubiquitous and so often imitated — even unconsciously — that younger painters seem to be tired of it and less likely to give it the credit it deserves. Even so, they will miss him when he is gone.
For us on this side of the ocean, Katz’s paintings remain exciting to see; and he thinks his current show at the Serpentine Gallery (until September 11) might be his best yet. There are some of the huge portraits for which he is most famous — the face might cover a square metre of canvas — and these new examples are all set against a bright orange background. They are painted loosely, with extreme economy; and there is a certain formula: an arc for the eyelid and eyelashes all at once — the colour of the white of the eye, beneath, is always ignored — and even the way the brush turns around to describe light falling on the lower lip is routine.
To British eyes these can sometimes seem like enlarged versions of Craigie Aitchison’s portraits. But the best of them are monumental, not merely big. With such attention paid to shapes in profile, they really do recall the 15th-century Italian frescoes which Katz has so admired.
Part of the joy of seeing those old frescoes is meeting with the men of the Renaissance — whatever the scenes they were posing in, their faces gave them away. The same is true of the modern New Yorkers in Katz’s paintings. Katz is credited with having contrived a style at just the right moment, factoring in Pop Art, with compositional references to cinema and billboard advertising, while paying tribute to the legacy of Abstract Expressionism with strung-out brushstrokes on an epic scale.
But it is not because of the timely “relevance” of his style that Katz’s paintings are good; rather, they are good for how their contemporary quality becomes irrelevant — somehow Katz manages to turn the typical costumes and poses of our day into art in a way that many others have failed to do. He has never worried about the “timelessness” of his paintings; and perhaps for that very reason he sometimes achieves a “timeless” quality.
His subject is not as superficial as it might seem: he has always enjoyed painting glamorous women, no doubt hoping to channel their personal elegance through his brushes. But Raphael, Titian and Correggio, along with so many others, painted glamorous women and hoped the same. Katz’s laid-back approach to art has let him see more simply and clearly than other Modernists into certain aspects of the tradition.
For me he has never matched his earlier paintings, in which figures are grouped at cocktail parties or the seaside; and this Serpentine show is far from his best. It focuses too much on his landscapes, which are daring but often so big they seem out of control, and the colour deadens and flattens. The emphasis on brushwork here seems oriental; and so does the subject-matter: when Katz attempts to paint the poetry of autumn leaves blowing from a tree as the day fades, I think of Hiroshige — and inevitably the comparison is unfavourable. Yet the centrepiece of the exhibition, City Landscape — an enormous blue and black canvas from 1995 showing snowy parkland with electric lights in the distance — is impressive, with real movement and mood.
Any show of Katz’s paintings is worth looking at seriously. Opportunities to see good contemporary painting are all too rare.