If art museums are the 180-minute foreign films that few watch, then exhibitions are the awards ceremonies for those unpopular films — the closest a misunderstood artist can get to the glamour of Hollywood awards season, replacing some kitschy red carpet with the edgy, artistic industrialism of concrete. Here, the Oscar went to Alex Katz, who celebrated the opening of his exhibit, “Katz x Katz” at Yale School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Ave. Gallery. In brief Wikipedia terms, Katz has been a prolific artist since the 1950s, with his style sometimes dubbed the precursor to pop art.
Passing the paparazzi (several chilly New Haven police officers), I entered the gallery. Given the abundance of combat boots and studded leather jackets worn by visitors, what seemed like a faint smell of Zara lingered in the air, echoing the conscious branding present in Katz’s work.
Despite the intimidating sartorial edginess, most people gush to each other. A reclusive minority (myself included) slinked around the walls, assumed “Le Penseur” pose and absorbed Katz’s work.
Spatially, the exhibit rejects the familiar linearity of a museum experience. The largest wall displays Katz’s paintings in a kaleidoscopic array. I craned my head to find a large mural of two men about to kiss, one in Sleeping Beauty serenity. Somehow the arrangement avoids chaos, intensifying the experience of Katz’s work as more billboard than Botticelli.
Even in his flashiest murals, however, Katz clings to a shred of realism. He avoids the glitz of Lichtenstein and Warhol, never fully embracing the brightness and boldness of pop art. Still, Katz favors a detached two-dimensionality in portraying the human form — stylistically, but also emotionally. Haunting sideward glances and empty gazes stare at viewers. This indifference seems the most dated and disappointing aspect of Katz’s works. Katz nearly always sets his human forms against abstract or domestic backgrounds. In one piece — a personal favorite of mine — he depicts an idyllic lake with a human head emerging from the water, smiling despite nearly drowning. In another, a couple’s heads are surrounded by a sea of blue, seemingly drowning in bright turquoise hues. His large murals typify, in textbook simplicity, pop art’s stylistic aversion to emotional engagement.
For pithy gems of cultural observations, I often look no further than Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” In one episode, the main character Hannah calms her first-date nerves with the following adage: “You are from New York, therefore you are just naturally interesting.” Part of the artistic fascination with Katz, in that same vein, is rooted in his obvious urbanity. With subjects like Allen Ginsburg and other easily recognizable figures (including Yale School of Art Dean Robert Storr), Katz woos viewers with big-name subjects.
Bowing my head back down to eye level, I discovered the artist’s less flashy works. Alive with broad brushstrokes and more nuanced features, these pieces betray a sensitivity absent in Katz’s more popular works, such as the four-canvas “Twelve Hours” mural. The breadth of these paintings and drawings saves Katz from any characterization as one-dimensional. One cluster of three pieces depicts the same woman, eyes closed and nearly drowning. Stylistically simple, colored with muted browns in one and gray scale in another, the pieces strike a depth despite their cartoonish framework, daring to depict darkness (figuratively and literally) more directly.
Even more revealing are his landscapes, abstract scenes of bright flowers and lush greenery. For these smaller pieces, Katz visibly loosens his style, crafting less polished and less contrived portrayals of nature that feel more authentic, not in their strict realism, but in their conveyance of Katz’s true artistic identity. Unpredictable in their style, these pieces depart from his more well-known, conventional work.
Just before leaving, I walked down a narrow ramp and glanced at the large, polished silver lettering: “Katz x Katz.” I read it as “Katz by Katz.” Entirely the artist’s own.