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Katz's 'Clunky Elegance' at Kohn Gallery


"To get power, you have to repress yourself," says New York artist Alex Katz, a man who practices what he preaches. Known for his flat, uninflected portraits of figures in the New York art world, Katz has perfected a rigorously disengaged style that bristles with conflicted subtext. Tightly composed, reductive, and ripe with allusions to wealth and sexual game playing, his work seems to hint at some veiled, imprecisely defined American fantasy.

In a show of 17 small works spanning 39 years, on view at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Santa Monica, Katz--who often works very large--shows a softness one doesn't associate with him. Including landscapes, still lifes, and of course, portraits, the exhibit features loosely painted works from the early '50s that reveal clear links with Abstract Expressionism (one of Katz's main achievements was his reconciliation of abstraction and figurative painting), along with works from this year (a portrait of his wife and longtime model, Ada) that suggest he is moving in a more nuanced, romantic direction; his new work is freighted with a warmth and tenderness that marks a significant shift in his style.

Katz is frequently described as a Pop artist--partly because his career was launched in the '60s, partly because he paints with the generalized bluntness of advertising graphics--but he has only the most tenuous links with Pop. "I make big heads so people think I'm a Pop artist," Katz has said, "but I'm not dealing with Pop issues."

In fact, he's a product of much more traditional bloodlines; one thinks of Edouard Manet, Matisse, Milton Avery, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley when one looks at Katz's paintings. He's clearly enchanted by the romance of painting and well versed in its history, whereas Pop was primarily concerned with mass media. Katz never cared much about that.

Breezy yet labored, Katz's style blends elements of Photo Realism with a mannered naivete that makes the emotional content of his images hard to read--he paints in such a neutral, brusque way that it's difficult to gauge his feelings about his subject matter. His portrait style revolves around boldly foregrounded, dramatically cropped heads floating in shallow pictorial space that's flooded with stark light, yet lacking a discernible light source. The pictures are at once intimate and familiar, remote and artificial. Katz describes his style as "clunky elegant," and his work does exude a fractured sophistication evocative of jazz; like a good jazz player, Katz does something intense and demanding in a casual, off-the-cuff way. He packs a lot into a very few notes.

Michael Kohn Gallery: 920 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica; to July 6; (213) 393-7713. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Screen Gems: It's no coincidence that Patrick Morrison's new paintings, on view at the Earl McGrath Gallery in Hollywood, have a distinct cinematic quality. The paintings were commissioned for Wim Wenders' soon-to-be-released film, "Until the End of the World," which features Morrison in a small role as an artist. One deduces from the evidence provided here that the artist Morrison portrays is a rather brooding fellow; these new paintings combine the lurid palette of Toulouse-Lautrec with the haunted melancholia of Edward Hopper. They're intensely raw, carnal works, but they're shot through with sadness too. As in the art of German Expressionist Max Beckmann, they seem to espouse a curiously robust version of fatalism.

Each of the 10 works is rooted in a glamourized interpretation of the alienation of city streets--and the city in this case seems to be Paris. One canvas depicts a trench-coated figure walking by an Eiffel Tower painted so electrically orange that it appears to be on fire, while a work titled "Rue St. Saveur" is tinged with the sentimentality of Maurice Utrillo. The paintings are populated by a fixed cast of characters that turn up repeatedly--an exotic hooker and a trench-coated man seem to be the central players in this drama--and this leads one to attempt to "read" the paintings like a storybook (or a movie); in this, Morrison's work is evocative of Eric Fischl, whose work also revolves around cryptic, ambiguous narratives.

Morrison's Parisian tale is, however, a story without a beginning or end. Rather, we simply roam with these isolated characters as they move from heavily shadowed courtyard to dingy bar to bustling sidewalk. All of these locales pulsate with mystery, sex and something sightly sinister. Perfumed with a strange, dangerous beauty, the world Morrison evokes seems simultaneously inviting and deadly.

Earl McGrath Gallery: 454 N. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills; to July 13; (213) 652-9850. Closed Sundays and Mondays .

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