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Cheever Country

Why do Alex Katz’s elegant canvases strike critics as the ultimate in WASP art?

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Though currently on exhibit at the Jewish Museum, Alex Katz’s paintings do little to reveal the religion of their maker. In fact, critics have delicately approached this Jewish artist’s decidedly non-Jewish aesthetic with vague appraisals that tiptoe around the problematic discussion of what, exactly, a Jewish aesthetic might be. Ken Johnson, writing in The New York Times, compared a gathering in one Katz painting to “a scene from a John Cheever novel,” while Holland Cotter suggested, in the same paper, that Katz lent his subjects a “preppy-bohemian glamour.” Out of politesse, both critics avoided calling Katz’s treatment of his subjects flat-out “waspy,” though both imply such a conclusion. The work—frontal portraits manifest in flat colors, with few physical details like wrinkles or blemishes—elicits a sense that it may be easier to identify what is not Jewish about a work of art than to identify what is. And that maybe God is in the details after all.

Katz’s subjects are for the most part free of any obvious ethnic attributes. He leaves the viewer with only a handful of visual cues: the beach, sunglasses, soirees, summer homes, bucolic landscapes. Most upwardly mobile Jews would be hard-pressed to surrender any part of that list as the provenance of non-Jews; in rational terms, those cultural clues are more the marks of class than religion. So, what makes the work Cheever-like? And “preppy-bohemian”? Is it possible that Jews are still identified with struggle—more than parties and boating—in artwork, even if they, themselves, are not struggling? In other words, are Jews addicted to their roles as empaths, identifying with struggle regardless of their specific lots?

Through March 18, 2007, the Jewish Museum hosts “Alex Katz Paints Ada,” featuring more than 40 of Katz’s portraits of his wife, painted over a half century. With such a venue comes the requisite conflation of Katz’s art and Judaism, though the merger rests on the facts of Katz’s birth more than on a particular aesthetic or social agenda. On the one hand, both his parents immigrated from Russia at the turn of the century and his mother was a Yiddish actress. On the other, he was born in Sheepshead Bay but raised in St Albans, Queens, “a neighborhood where there was only one other Jewish family,” he told me recently, adding that he never had a bar mitzvah. “I’m not religious at all.”

In a 2004 interview with Clare Henry of London’s Financial Times, Katz explains the way his father influenced his own process, “My Russian father was very disorganized. His way of putting tools away was to open the cellar door and throw—then he was furious when he couldn’t find them. Although I felt inadequate to him in many ways—he was a charismatic figure—I decided that was inefficient. But I have his explosive energy. It’s very Russian to have high energy and work fast.'” Katz’s father was both influence and counter-influence on his son; the painter is ultra-organized and systematic about his approach, and his work is controlled and disciplined, minimal in comparison to his father’s chaos.

For her part, Ada is Mother, Wife, Icon, and Muse. And, according to the artist, not just for Katz. “She becomes a universal type. And other women think they look like Ada, so the painting sort of becomes a symbol—she’s a symbol,” he observed, of the woman who, like him, came from an immigrant family, though hers was Italian and Catholic. To walk into a room filled with paintings and cut-outs of Ada, painted over almost 50 years, is powerful; you come upon confident, ardent—though unsentimental—love song. Aside from a few early paintings, which are a bit less sure stylistically and, oddly enough, more romantic, Katz’s quest to realize Ada in paint begat the realization of his distinctive style, and his self-realization as an artist.

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Cheever Country

Why do Alex Katz’s elegant canvases strike critics as the ultimate in WASP art?

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