An influential figure in contemporary painting for the last half-century, Alex Katz presents a new series of eleven large-scale portraits in a focused solo exhibition titled The White Coat.
Alex Katz: The White Coat is on view at Gray Chicago from October 22 through December 17, 2021. Schedule your appointment here.
The White Coat is a new series of portraits by Alex Katz, painted from 2020 to 2021. Katz’s ongoing endeavor to capture fleeting moments in time manifests in this body of work as a sequence of snapshot-like images. Across these eleven portraits, Katz paints a range of dynamic compositions unified by a brilliant light blue ground color. The figure turns towards and away from the viewer in a state of perpetual motion, retaining an air of mystery in each canvas.
The following passages unless otherwise noted are extracts from Jan Verwoert’s essay “Paint Somebody Like You Would Call Them by Name,” published in Alex Katz: The White Coat, forthcoming from Gray. Purchase the book here.
Here is something to learn from the way Alex Katz paints: he shows you people, places, trees, and scenes from daily life. He gives them to be seen but he doesn’t surrender them to your gaze. He protects who and what he paints. His works preserve the integrity of the portrayed. Not necessarily, however, by keeping secrets. On the contrary, the manner in which his works address you is rather that of him making introductions: “Have you met Ada?”—“May I introduce you to Vivien?”—“I’d like you to meet the Three Trees.”
To have followed his work over the years will mean that you know the portrayed well by name and, in responding to the paintings, have in fact said hello to them many times, in your mind. “A pleasure to meet you. Yes, I believe we have met. How are you?” The face, name, and presence may be rendered familiar by the paintings. But at no point do they invite incursions into the life of the portrayed. Katz refrains from laying life bare to a mode of reading that would overstep boundaries, penetrate and dissect a subject. He does so consistently, and strikingly, regardless of whether he introduces you to a human being, family of trees, or landscape. Birches don’t make poker faces. Neither do people in Katz’s portraits.
So it’s not like he blocks readings. He simply does not bait the invasive gaze. Rather than embolden viewers to insinuate themselves into works and rashly read between lines, Katz will choose to paint very few.
He paints a big yes to the power of the face to speak of life, but a distinctive no to psychological carnivores getting their fill. He gives you the look, not the scoop.
“So have you met Vivien?” Vivien looks you in the eye and stands firmly. But still she will not stand for long. The folds and ripples in the white coat she wears give clues to the fact that she may prefer to stay in motion. As do the freely interlacing patterns of black lines on the blouse she put on under the coat. Vivien looks around, turns, and is on her way. One moment, her dark hair, cut to a bob, parts evenly, and makes her features speak out with pronounced presence, as it frames them with perfect ease. Yet, as she starts to turn, her hair swoops in, adds spin to her élan, and covers her face from view.
Vivien moves before a backdrop of bright, light blue, and—look closely—the seams of her coat at times appear to have a radiant yellow lining. Hints of shadows on the left side of her face signal and safeguard a sense of inner life beyond the reach of the avid readerly gaze. Another key thing about these shadows is that they wander. From cheeks, chin, and contours over lapels and arms to folds of all kinds till they spread over the blue backdrop like fine currents rippling the surface of water throughout its entire expanse.
What I describe here is a body of paintings, Vivien in White Coat 1–11, which Katz made between 2020 and 2021; and, honestly, paintings is what they first of all declare themselves to be. No six-hundred-page biography, no exclusive interview, but a set of eleven portraits painted with a reduced color palette. “This is what I got,” is what I hear the artist say through the work, “so this is what I can give, back to you, in my shorthand style.”
This is a soul moving, relayed with simplest means, yet in ever so many subliminally kinetic forms.
Much may have been written about what it means for people to inspire paintings, and sadly it often makes it seem like a one-way street where one gives the impulse and the other excels at capturing it. With Katz musing—for years, if not decades—over how to “paint someone by name,” this can hardly be said to be the case. In fact, as evinced by the portraits, these musings rather seem to sustain a magnetic field where painting and life enter into mutual relations over long periods of time.
In this light, you could say, Vivien turns, Alex shifts perspective, and what syncing motion in this manner testifies to is how people, friends or family, come to a special way of being around each other, over time. So if this body of painting inspires musings, they may be about what lies at the heart of long relations: an art of appreciation, perhaps, of paying homage to the unique qualities someone may embody without impinging on the way they express them. Likewise, a choreography of motion, a dance, if you will, which permits people who orbit one another every day not to eat each other up, but, instead, maintain the freedom to simply, and truly, address each other by name: “Hi, Vivien, how are you?”
Jan Verwoert is a writer who lives in Berlin, and teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, and Academy of the Arts, in Oslo.
Alex Katz (American, b. 1927) is one of the most recognized and widely-exhibited artists of his generation. Often associated with the Pop Art movement, Katz began exhibiting his work in 1954, and since that time he has produced a celebrated body of work that includes paintings, drawings, sculpture, and prints. His earliest work took inspiration from various aspects of mid-century American culture and society, including television, film, and advertising. Known for creating large works with a bold simplicity and heightened color palette, Katz created what art historian Robert Storr called “a new and distinctive type of realism in American art which combines aspects of both abstraction and representation.”
Since the 1950s, Katz’s work has been the subject of more than 200 solo exhibitions and nearly 500 group exhibitions around the world. His work can be found in nearly 100 public collections worldwide.
Alex Katz will be the subject of an upcoming career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, opening in 2022. Read further about Katz's practice on his artist page.