Alex Katz’s Attack Of Nine-Foot Women Cheerfully Grotesque

It has been said of the oversize exhibition spaces which have now become a standard feature of Chelsea art galleries that the scale of the architecture is often more impressive than the art in the shows. That, certainly, has often been my experience in my sojourns into the wide-open spaces of Chelsea. Only the painters—and not all of them, either—could wish these galleries to be any bigger than they are. As a consequence of their ambitious dimensions, the galleries inevitably favor large-scale efforts—abstract paintings on a scale that neither Pollock nor Rothko would have dreamed possible, or the kind of sprawling, high-intensity constructions that, whatever their aesthetic merits, have the visual power to tame the space and render it more or less habitable for the casual viewer. This pretty much rules out what we used to call easel painting by artists as different and as great as Vuillard, Mondrian and Morandi, whose work would be utterly lost in a ballroom-size interior.

On the other hand, there are painters of quite traditional subjects—portrait figures and landscapes—who are not only unfazed by this oversized space, but positively revel in it. One of them is Alex Katz, whose new exhibition, called Twelve Paintings, is on view at the Chelsea branch of the PaceWildenstein Gallery. Ten of the paintings in this show are tall, vertical portraits of women, each nearly nine feet high, in which the female subjects are cropped at the top just above their hairline and, at the bottom edge of the canvas, at the chest. The sides of the paintings are similarly cropped in a way that sometimes eliminates the subject’s left eye. Such crops are by now an established convention in Mr. Katz’s oeuvre, as is the movie-screen close-up scale of the portrait subject’s features—a convention one is tempted to dub in-her-face portraiture.

Rothko famously said of his own large color abstractions that their scale was necessary for achieving a certain intimacy with the viewer, and it’s true of many large-scale color-field abstractions that they do invite a kind of public intimacy for the eye to settle into. But it’s also often true that large-scale figurative paintings have the opposite effect on the viewer: An eye or a mouth that’s many times larger than life-size may be shocking or amusing or otherwise unexpected, but it’s not likely to afford the viewer an experience of intimacy. The iconic scale of the subject’s facial features tends to drain them of character or personality. If not for the cheerful spirit of Mr. Katz’s outsized portraits, one might even call the scale of these faces grotesque—cheerfully grotesque.

But “cheerful” isn’t quite the mot juste. For a better description, we have to venture into the uncharted realm of feeling and thought that, for better and for worse, has come to be called “cool.” Since this word has now become part of the mindless static of contemporary life, it’s almost impossible to define; one might even say that it would be the essence of an “uncool” mind to attempt to define “cool” too narrowly. What it seems to mean for many people is a style or sensibility in which an affectation of minimal effort achieves maximum effect.

Whatever it is, Mr. Katz seems abundantly possessed of it in his large-scale portrait paintings; they strike this viewer as very cool, indeed.

Mr. Katz is also a highly accomplished painter of landscapes and skyscapes, however, and his inspired handling of those subjects is anything but cool. His landscapes and skyscapes are exquisitely painterly—and, let’s face it, painterliness isn’t cool. It’s too obviously painstaking to be cool; it is—dare one say it?—too traditional to be cool. There’s only one landscape painting in the show at PaceWildenstein—the huge Winter Scene (2004), which measures eight by 10 feet—and it’s a knockout achievement.

Equally impressive is an even larger canvas called 6:30 AM (2004), which measures 11 and a half feet square and is clearly related to Winter Scene, but may at first glance be mistaken for a gray and white abstraction. One is tempted to say that with these two paintings, Mr. Katz is the hottest painter of winter snow on the current scene.

Alex Katz: Twelve Paintings remains on view at PaceWildenstein, 534 West 25th Street, through Oct. 9.