One of the highlights of the artist’s celebrated exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 2010, Bettina and Marina (2009) is a monumental double portrait by Alex Katz. The two sitters – depicted in Katz’s effortless, eloquent schematic style – stare coolly out of the picture. Bettina’s angular features are framed by a mane of golden hair, whose tresses glint with reflections of the dark blue backdrop; she turns her face very slightly to her right. Marina, dark-eyed and dark-haired, is recognisable as the world-renowned Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic. She fixes us with a calm, direct stare, as if prophesying The Artist is Present: her legendary 2010 performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art where, for eight hours a day, over the course of nearly three months, she locked eyes with 1,000 strangers. Many of them were moved to tears. Like Abramovic, Katz is interested in energising moments of daily existence: his paintings can be seen to enact an open, heightened state of recognition. With the very sparest of brushstrokes, he captures the sibylline power of Marina’s gaze. Bettina’s presence is no less distinctly individual. Katz stages a subtle frisson, a play of similarity and difference, in his subjects’ side-by-side placement. Presented on billboard scale, they are at once intimately close and sublimely distant, exposed and utterly enigmatic.
This dramatic, widescreen composition stems from the artist’s late series of ‘Black Paintings’, which spotlight their sitters against profoundly dark backdrops to create a cinematic intensity of vision. The ‘black’ that fills the pictures is in fact richly varied, with each given its own subtle shade: Bettina and Marina’s is an inky midnight blue. Painted well into his ninth decade, these works realise an ambition for vastness that was Katz’s from an early stage. Studying art at Cooper Union in the era of Abstract Expressionism, the Brooklyn-born painter wanted to make figurative work that would stand up against the most powerful canvases of the New York School. ‘Those Klines and de Koonings had so much big energy; I wanted to make something that knocked them off the wall’, he remembers. ‘Just like that – more muscle, more energy. They set the standard. It wasn’t the style I wanted to follow, but I wanted to paint up to their standards. So I took a figurative work and I said, “Well, I want a figurative painting on the scale of the Abstract Expressionists,” you know, on a big scale’ (A. Katz, quoted in ‘Robert Storr in Conversation with Alex Katz’, in Alex Katz, London, 2014, p. 14).
There is more than just scale to Katz’s achievement. The sphinx-like force of the faces in Bettina and Marina is born of a deep understanding of how human vision works. Writing in 1961, Katz declared: ‘I would like my paintings to be brand-new ... A brand-new painting without much quality can be exciting, but there is nothing quite like a painting that is brand-new and terrific’ (A. Katz, ‘Brand-New and Terrific’, Scrap, Vol. 6, April 19, 1961, p. 3). What he meant by ‘brand-new and terrific’ was a certain kind of representational painting that hit the viewer with a powerful visual jolt, paralleling the perceptual phenomenon of seeing a person for the first time. Katz noticed that there is a moment of intense recognition that occurs when seeing something new. This is followed by a slower development in which our peripheral vision gradually expands outward to fill in the details of the surrounding space. Katz flattens and stylises his figures, simplifying and distilling them so as to mimic that initial focal impact: the effect invests even his most familiar subjects, who are typically friends, family and close acquaintances, with the shock of the new. As he explained, ‘I was working from the point of painting perception ... like compressing everything into a single burst of energy. That’s what I was about’ (A. Katz, quoted in an interview conducted by Paul Cummings, October 20, 1969; accessed via Archives of American Art).
Katz achieves the apparent innocence of his works – flat, clean planes of colour, tranquil and everyday subject matter – with enormous sophistication. His bold chromatic fields and expansive canvases chime with the bravest innovations in Colour Field, Minimalist and Pop painting while fitting into none of these camps; his deep knowledge of the Old Masters and Impressionists, as well as an enduring fascination with Ancient Egyptian sculpture, infuses his figures and faces with timeless grandeur. In Katz’s hands, the intimacies of daily life become crystalline, vast and iconic. As Robert Rosenblum has written, ‘What may finally be most remarkable about Katz’s achievement is the way in which he has taken the stuff of daily living and loving we thought suitable only for an uneventful diary entry and transferred it, without a manifesto, to the grand-scale arena of American monumental painting today. Both private and public, modest and profound, these commanding pictures fuse the highest demands of ambitious abstract art with the need to record the quiet truths of personal experience’ (R. Rosenblum, ‘Alex Katz’s American Accent’, Alex Katz, exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1986, p. 31).