NEW YORK — Are the paintings of Alex Katz a guilty pleasure, or just a pleasure? “Gathering,” a newly opened career survey at the Guggenheim in New York of the 95-year old painter’s eight decades of work, finally, hopefully, makes the question moot. Katz’s work is almost uniformly painterly confection, a high-calorie indulgence of color and form unburdened by the fortifying nutrients of social context or meaning. Since the dawn of time, or at least Modernism, that’s meant relegation to less “serious” realms of consideration, and Katz has been no exception; this is his first retrospective in nearly 40 years, half his painterly life.
That helps explain what David Greene, the president of Colby College, told me was the fuel for Katz’s long career: When Katz, who’s given nearly 900 works to the college, was in town for the opening of his concurrent exhibition at the college’s art museum, he summed it up for Greene with a single word: hostility.
But “Gathering” displays no such explicit note, unfurling along the museum’s swooping corkscrew corridor, an expanding field of visual delight. Vivid and colorful, peopled with Katz’s jubilantly oblique figures, it feels like the most glamorous cocktail party you’ve ever been to. More than 150 paintings strong, it slips into the idiosyncrasies of the building as if it were made specifically for it: Ascending its curl, you can glance across the building’s open-air canyon and see almost everything all at once.
For Katz, that’s a uniquely coherent experience. There are almost no periods or departures to his career; it stands as a unified whole. Across an epoch of American art where upheaval was often a goal unto itself, Katz’s work is eerily consistent: People and more people, pared down to a mellifluous visual elegance of color and composition. Amid the cacophony of an art world in constant flux, Katz is a sustaining note.
The show begins in the 1940s and unspools chronologically. Among the first works are “Ella Marion in Red Sweater,” from 1946, a young painter’s portrait of his mother, buoyant but unsure; and “Three Figures on a Subway,” 1948, riders loosely sketched and perched amid a field of blocky color. Then, there’s a sudden breakout: A side gallery near the bottom of the ramp contains three towering pictures, loose and breezy, almost monochrome, made very recently.
Here’s where the hostility comes in: There’s a tease inherent in Katz scaling up and paring back, the indistinctness playing at abstraction, his early painterly foe. “Golden Image,” 2017, seethes, a fiery yellow, boughs and trunks of trees captured in gleaming silhouette; “Grey Landscape,” 2019, floats fronds and stems in a soft wash of cool, ashen blue.
Katz emerged at a time when depicting the world itself, and people especially, was deemed passé; in the early 1950s, “serious” artists painted the rawness of being in rough gestural strokes. So the story goes, at least, and Abstract Expressionism told it well, dominating American art for decades — and putting those not devoted to its dogma, like Katz, on the outside.
The compulsion to try it on for size would have been strong, and Katz did: “Untitled,” from 1951, is a small panel of blank silhouettes that flirt openly with semi-abstract strategies; I doubt I’m alone in seeing in its ragged forms an echo of Willem de Kooning.
Katz admired Jackson Pollock, the AbEx superstar, but found closer kinship in the work of Milton Avery. Avery had studied with AbEx luminaries like Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, but rejected abstraction for minimal figuration and landscape. A beguiling cluster of Katz’s sketches here, from the 1950s, could have been painted by Avery himself.
Katz’s stint at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Scupture in Maine, a counterweight to abstraction’s rising tide, strengthened his convictions. Wherever the art world was going, Katz had set his own course. A group of paintings here, landscapes and seasides alive with bright color, hint at the genesis of a longstanding Katzian characteristic, of reality blithely bent to his aesthetic will.
Katz is no realist, and never was; but neither is he a fabulist, which puts him on unique painterly ground. A vertical seaside scene, the beach arcing gently from the bottom of the frame, is serene and quotidian — except the sand, sea, and sky are a soft, dusty rose. Even so, it feels authentic, simple beauty dressed matter-of-factly in something surprisingly other. Katz’s gift is to be plainspoken and oblique all at once.
Katz hit stride in the mid-to-late ′60s, working outside the rising war between Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art. A moment came and went when he might have thrown in with Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, whose bright colors and human figures seemed to make them natural allies. Pop, with its wink and nudge to consumer junk culture, was ill-fitting. Katz’s concern was right in front of him, the world as he saw it in the immediate, fleeting now.
Climbing ever upward — the Guggenheim stimulates the calves as much as the mind — you can see Katz settle in. A 1959 portrait of the choreographer Paul Taylor feels like a signpost: Taylor, all in white, squared up in a field of gray as though pinned to a board.
Katz’s formal restraint would be his hallmark — his faces drawn sharply, but with minimal detail, always just enough. The show’s next chapter, beginning in 1961, sees Katz scale up and zoom in: In “The Red Smile,” 1963, a big canvas, an enduring feature of his work comes into full view: a woman in profile, lightly drawn close up against a bright red background, detached from time and space.
A string of close face studies give way to what, in Katz’s world, pass for elaborate scenes, the artist loosening his grip: the languid pleasure of a social gathering in “Mr. and Mrs. R. Padgett, Mr. and Mrs. D. Gallup,” 1971, with its two couples gathered around a table; the overlapping legs, arms, and driftwood of “Round Hill,” 1977, a beach scene and one of my personal favorites. Katz does everything but put you, the viewer, in the frame with his subjects. It’s the closest thing to being there.
There’s a long climb left — 40-plus years — and really, it’s more of the same, which is no critique. Katz is just that consistent, often gloriously so. He experiments, briefly, as in “Piers,” a late ′90s series; pale forms drift against black, another flirt with the abstract. But he always comes home: to the extension of a dancer’s arm; a telling face; the tangle of flower or forest.
In a final room, a cluster of recent works drained of Katz’s hallmark ebullient color make for an uncharacteristically somber scene: In black and white, he depicts the chaotic churn of a turbulent ocean, or a snow-cloaked field. The pieces are stark, but crackle with energy; where Katz is usually so inviting, they feel, well, hostile.
One, “White Reflection,” from 2021, what I imagine to be an icy fog, feels like a final note to the art-world continuum that denied his serious consideration for so long. It has clear intimations of the 1950s and ′60s monochrome abstractions of Robert Ryman, a contemporary if not a peer.
After everything else, it felt like a dull spot, maybe deliberately so. Why do less, it seemed to say, when the world offers so much more?
ALEX KATZ: GATHERING
Through Feb. 20. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York. 212-423-3500, www.guggenheim.org