"Alex Katz: The Complete Woodcuts and Linocuts 1950-2001"
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.
On view through Jan. 5
Before pop art came along to save the figure from the oblivion to which it was headed in abstraction-saturated, post-World War II America, Alex Katz was on a one-man rescue mission of his own.
Katz started shaking off the influence of abstraction in the mid-1950s, with pop art lurking in the wings. He never succumbed to pop, although his cut-out figures of the 1960s do resemble sign boards. (In 1961, he even did a cutout version of "Washington Crossing the Delaware," a subject that Larry Rivers had earlier made into a pop subject.) He lacked something -- the bright irony, the collusive spirit -- required of pop.
But he did have the coolness; he just put it to other purposes. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery's "Alex Katz: The Complete Woodcuts and Linocuts 1950-2001" tells the whole story, from Katz the quasi-abstractionist to Katz the refined figurative artist who developed a spare and elegant style like no one else on the contemporary scene. In fact, there are two states of a print from 1954-55 in the show that together comprise a demonstration piece on how to go from abstraction to figuration (the figure in this case being a dog).
Both are called "Dog and Chair." The first state is three colored shapes that probably wouldn't conjure up a dog or chair without the title. In the second state Katz does nothing but add a few broken lines and -- viola! -- dog and chair appear in complete, if spare form.
In these two prints, not particularly significant in themselves, it is as though Katz was setting the ground rules for his future art. Rule one: do the figure. Rule two: do it with a little visual razzamtazz as possible.
Born in 1927, Katz studied at Cooper Union in New York City back when that school concentrated on the practical arts. Sign painting, graphic arts, typography -- these things must have had an impact.< When he turned to fine art, his work retained a lot of the pragmatism of commercial art. From the beginning, his figurative work had the feeling that it was there simply to do a job -- efficiently, cleanly and without dragging in any specialized emotions out of the artist's personal life.
This emotional restraint is especially apparent in these 78 prints. His better-known paintings can overwhelm by sheer size or by the audacity of the radically pared-down compositions. Mostly small to moderate size, the prints speak in the plainest of terms and materials. They get no help from complex color schemes, and they exist without the tactile boost of paint and canvas.
The prints allow Katz to wonderfully stretch out the most meager of visual materials. He is a master at getting double and triple duty out of a single shape or line. Sometimes he pushes it too far and an image will go bland, or he strains for odd compositional effect ("Ursula" is an example). But when he's on, he has a slight folk art awkwardness that makes even calculated compositions seem natural extensions of a crisp and clear observation of real things.
These formal subtleties, wrapped as they are in a distilled realism, are what allow Katz to draw back on the feelings and not wind up with a bunch of mannequins. His characters feel; we just aren't privy to what they're feeling. The couples in the series "A Tremor in the Morning" (1986), for instance, are not alienated. Some kind of honest engagement is going on. But if there's a "tremor," we viewers aren't feeling it.
This is the way with Katz: He reveals by not revealing. Look through these prints and try to locate, say, some hint of melodrama, or even melancholy or pensiveness. You can read these things into Katz' faces and bodies, but it feels like cheating, tantamount to imagining the inner life of a Egyptian pharaoh from the evidence of his tomb portrait.
Not incidently Katz has sometimes alluded to ancient Egyptian art, but with the woodblocks and linocuts it is the Japanese printmakers who are the chief models. Sometimes the influence is technical, as in "The Green Cap" (1985) in which he took one of his paintings and translated it as a Japanese color woodcut. The original portrait, one of Katz' typically stilled beings, is given yet another level of quietude by colors delicately applied in the Japanese manner.The Japanese influence is everywhere -- in the patterned leaf compositions; in the very recent near all-over nature prints; in the many views of sun on water; in a beautiful portrait ("Brisk Day," 1990) in black, reds and pink that, for Katz, is almost robust.
One of the more wonderful things about Katz is that for all his whittling away at the many things that make up the observed figure, his characters aren't any less alive because of it. True, they may lack flesh (and maybe bones), but they still seem perfectly capable of drawing a breath. They're never merely still life objects with legs. Katz is, even at his most airy, a realist. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org