“The idea of making a contemporary portrait seemed like a real challenge—to be able to look at a person and paint them, forgetting what you had been taught. I did it out of things I liked about abstract paintings. When I got to the flat background, that was the most exciting thing in my life—bingo! It was the first time the paintings had real energy to them” (A. Katz, quoted in “Alex Katz Interviewed by David Salle,” Alex Katz: Unfamiliar Images, Milan, 2002, p. 17).
Alex Katz is a brilliantly deceptive painter. He carefully seduces the viewer with luminous bursts of color, sumptuously contoured lines and elegantly stylized portraits. Yet belying the glamour and ease of his art, Katz successfully bridges the seemingly insurmountable gap between the monumentality of the Abstract Expressionists and the direct factuality of Pop art. For Katz, realistic portraiture isnot merely an exercise in rendering specific details of likeness, but in fact becomes a vehicle for the exploration of the very essence of painting. Katz’s December, 1974 is a fantastic example of the artist’s signature talent for capturing a real and personal moment and elevating it to its most lustrous, simplified, immediate and electric form.
Casually posed, a man and a woman sit on a leather couch in a softly lit interior. The man in his crimson sweater and tropical shirt stares directly out at the viewer with a quietly assertive expression. Next to him, a woman with a lavender sweater and hand resting upon her tilted head, peers up and out past the viewer. Both have relaxed into comfortable positions as they listen, watch and wait. Receding diagonally behind them is a window with two spidery plants perched atop a table. Outside the window are distant buildings that within the rectangular window frame create dramatic angles and geometric shapes. Katz has painted a frank and sincere scene whose complexity in composition and technique only emerges upon further inspection. As is characteristic of Katz’s cool and cunning style, everything in the painting is truncated by the finite boundaries of the canvas. Yet instead of fracturing the visual field, these omissions expand the painting, implying continuity beyond the edges of the canvas and subsequently the painting juts into the viewer’s physical space. The woman is not actually without a left hand and the man is not really a floating torso, but these missing components exist instead outside the pictorial arena and thereby explicitly involve the spectator in the scene, placing the viewer inside the living room, in dialogue with the couple.
Interestingly, Katz’s decision to crop his scenes in this manner derives from his sage synthesis of the Abstract Expressionists' “all-over” painting style and Pop Art’s appropriation of advertising’s visual language. As an art student living in New York in the 1950s, Katz was truly inspired and motivated by Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, explaining that their work “had so much big energy; I wanted to make something that knocked them off the wall. 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” (A. Katz quoted in “Robert Storr in Conversation with Alex Katz,” Alex Katz, New York, 2005, p. 8). Katz was able to selectively utilize the New York School painters’ discoveries and accomplishments to inform his own unique style of realism. In Pollock’s drippy, aggressive and pulsating canvases, Katz saw light and landscapes. Yet Katz rejected painting in the gestural style, feeling that Abstract Expressionist art had grown tired, convenient and mannered. Katz was determined to explore representation supported by the formal techniques of abstraction.
In addition, movies, television, magazines and billboards became exciting sources for Katz from which to paint. As the artist exclaims, “Advertising images were fresh. The way they took a rectangle and broke it up was exciting. The composition ideas, some of them, were crazy!” (A. Katz quoted in “Alex Katz Interviewed by David Salle,” Alex Katz: Unfamiliar Images, Milan, 2002, p. 19). The manner in which Katz truncates the body directly correlates to advertising billboards that used this compositional strategy as a means of boldly promoting their products. The artist also adopted advertising’s use of slick, smooth and shiny surfaces, which he made possible through his “wet-on-wet” paint application and by his uncanny ability to render light. December is a prime example of how Katz’s additions of highlights to the couch, on the folds of the couple’s sweaters and around the edges of their hair create a sumptuous glistening effect. Even the empty back wall is transformed by the stream of winter light that illuminates a particular rectangular section of the wall, simultaneously recalling the color field paintings of Mark Rothko and the textured works of Edgar Degas.
Alex Katz fuses the innovations of abstract painting with the finish fetish of Pop Art to depict elegant scenes that venerate the quotidian life. Katz’s distinctive crisp and clean style conceals the complex conceptual, compositional and technical triumphs of his art. As critic Robert Rosenblum aptly observes, “Both private and public, modest and proud, 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).