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Alex Katz's Early Drawings Reveal His Potential

Alex Katz, Profile of Woman in Glasses, c. 1940s, Pencil, 8 x 4 7/8 inches © Alex Katz / DACS, London / VAGA, New York, Courtesy Timothy Taylor 16×34

Alex Katz: Subway Drawings

Timothy Taylor 16 x 34 Gallery

New York, New York

April 27th – June 30th, 2017

Presented in collaboration with Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome

By DAVID AMBROSE, JUN. 2017

“At Cooper (in drawing class), all I could do in twenty minutes was two lines. After two weeks, the teacher, Bob Gwathmey, suggested I get a larger pad. I realized if things continued this way I would flunk out.” 

--Alex Katz, 2017

By all accounts, the American artist Alex Katz (b. 1927) is the picture of good health. At 89 years old, Katz chooses the stairs over an elevator and jogs daily. But even Alex Katz realizes he can’t go on forever. A subtle admission of that very fact hangs in the Timothy Taylor 16 x 34, located on 19th Street in Chelsea, where 52 of Katz’s “Subway Drawings” (and one lone painting) remain on exhibit until June 30th. Built in 1835, the tiny whitewashed and brick-walled gallery was formerly a stable and a residence in its previous lives. Guarded by an iron gate at street level, it perhaps is one of the few 19th century edifices still surviving on the West Side of 10th Avenue--and it, too, may know that its days are numbered.

Alex Katz, Man with Hat Leaning on Balcony, c. 1940s, Black ink, 6 1/4 x 4 1/2 inches © Alex Katz / DACS, London / VAGA, New York, Courtesy Timothy Taylor 16×34

While Katz has cast a very long shadow on figurative art for the past sixty years, that path began on a subway platform with a group of contour line figures with nary a shadow among them. Many of these drawings were made while riding the E Line from his families’ home in St. Alban’s, Queens to the East Village and back. It is riding in those subway cars that Katz’s journey as an artist really began. The notebook drawings, all no bigger than 8 x 5 inches, were made during Katz’s student years at Cooper Union in New York (1946-1949). Katz has edited these drawings down from a larger group of sketchbooks. His selections file into the gallery like a long row of subway cars, or like a line of commuters waiting on the platform for the next train. 

Alex Katz, Young Man on the Subway, c. 1940s, Pencil / Black Ink, 8 x 4 7/8 inches © Alex Katz / DACS, London / VAGA, New York, Courtesy Timothy Taylor 16×34

While technically the drawings are from Katz’s “student years” at Cooper Union, where he studied with the social realist Robert Gwathmey (b.1903 – d. 1988) they are in fact self-taught. By self-taught, I mean in the manner they were conceived and executed: outside the classroom environment, on the way to and from school as a kind of independent study, without a drawing teacher looking over his shoulder, just other straphangers. In reality, the drawings were made in Katz’s real classroom: the urban sprawl of postwar America. In a way, Katz has never left it. By describing these drawings as self-taught, I do not mean to imply that Katz had no training--rather, that he had begun to question what was presented in the classroom during an era dominated by the spread of Modernism and, more specifically, the birth of Abstract Expressionism. These works are an early reminder that the artist had begun to look stylistically back to realism and carry the scent of the WPA, specifically the subway works of Reginald Marsh (b. 1898 – d. 1954), Mark Rothko (b. 1903 – d. 1970) and even Mark Tobey’s (b. 1890 –d. 1976) Seattle Public Market drawings of the 40’s. 

The earliest drawings are of single figures or portraits and take up half of the page. They are made in pencil (correctable) but would eventually progress to black and blue ink (permanent) with larger groups of full figures and deeper spaces. These drawings had me looking for hints of the mature Alex Katz yet to come, akin to hearing a distant melody that will soon commandeer a musical composition. The first such instance is Profile of Woman in Glasses (c.1940s), whose head hovers at the left margin and echoes Katz’s own portrait of dancer and choreographer, Paul Taylor (1965). A feathery geyser of pencil strokes rises from just above her ear. It is hard to tell if this was part of her hat or a hair style. Either way, the shape seems to be more in line with the spiky crop of hair in an Egon Schiele self-portrait than a commuter on a subway. The woman’s floral collar is drawn with a jaunty, agitated line that crackles like a voice from a speaker on the subway platform. 

Alex Katz, Big Man Looking Down, c. 1940s, Black ink, 4 7/8 x 7 7/8 inches © Alex Katz / DACS, London / VAGA, New York, Courtesy Timothy Taylor 16×34

In the case of Man with Handkerchief (c.1940s), we get a taste of both mediums on the same page, as a pencil line appears to break rank and separate from the ink of the overdrawing. An overcoat sleeve strap with buttons planted like seeds makes an abrupt stop a few stations short of the shoulder. As the years pass, Katz’s outgoing personality began to assert itself, as the drawings almost act as an invitation to extend his social circle. They start off as lonely, isolated, figures, fragmented and a little shy, only to become fuller cars and bustling rooms of more complex spaces. In Subway Scene with Three People (c.1940s), Katz gives us multiple views of the body: a three-quarter portrait of a stylishly dressed woman in the foreground and two full figures sharing a subway poll in the background; a profile view of man leaning on a pole while reading a newspaper; and the a back view of a woman holding that same pole. The space separating the figures is rendered convincingly by a shift in scale without any shading or ground plane. The more I studied these drawings, the more I realized the lack of ground plane was evident in all of them. Katz had begun to assert the primacy of the picture plane, something that he would take with him from this point forward. A delicate balancing act between figure and ground where each would carry equal weight and importance to the whole composition had started to be established.

As incredibly ambitious a group of drawings this is, it is by no means a tour de force show of remarkable draftsmanship from the artist’s student years--he was far from having perfected his craft at this point. Still; there is an air of generosity about the show because, Katz so often stumbles in these drawings. In Man Looking Away, (c.1940s), a black ink drawing of seated, middle-aged man in a suit studies a pad as we might type message on a cell phone. His furrowed brow and wavy hair cap an elegantly rendered downcast glance. An otherwise beautiful piece of draftsmanship is abruptly halted by a shrunken right foot desperate to fit on a page that is not big enough to accommodate it. 

Alex Katz, Crowd on Subway, c. 1940s, Pen, 4 7/8 x 7 7/8 inches © Alex Katz / DACS, London / VAGA, New York, Courtesy Timothy Taylor 16×34

You can argue that Katz, by his own admission, never had the desire to be “sketch artist”. Drawing tends to be a dry, abrasive medium, whether made with charcoal, pencil, or with pen and ink. Paint, on the other hand, is viscous, slippery and flows across canvas, board, or metal and it has always been more of his natural habitat. But drawing is to painting what walking is to running. And these early drawings are the drawings of a distance runner. Not because they took a long time to complete, but because Katz the draftsman needed time to perfect them. At the time he didn’t possess a fluid line that glides across the field like a sprinter--his lines are choppy, scratchy and a little unsure. You can teach gesture, but you can’t rush speedy recognition. But what you can build is a visual acuity and that would mirror stamina--something Katz has never been in short supply of.

Katz struggles in the places virtually all art students do at first: spatial relationships, proportion, foreshortening and the extremities of hands and feet, but not in rendering facial features. But near the end of the line, I found a drawing, Man with Hat Leaning on a Balcony (c.1940s), that seemed to define what being Alex Katz is. It is a simple contour line drawing of the backside of a man leaning over a rail. There are small punctuation marks of a denser network of lines in the heels of his shoes and vertical lines of the crown of his hat. He shifts his shoulders and hips in a convincing contrapposto pose. The struggle to harness the proper lines has diminished. This drawing, like the very best of Alex Katz’s work, is taut, lean, and seemingly effortless, with no wasted energy or fuss. But as we all know, such ease is seldom the case. Katz had to travel many miles on those subway tracks to get here, and here was only the starting line. As I looked at this perfect little piece of paper, I found myself thinking: "not bad for a young guy from Queens who was wondering if he might flunk out of Cooper Union."

Alex Katz, Man with Hat, c. 1940s, Black ink, 8 x 5 inches © Alex Katz / DACS, London / VAGA, New York Courtesy, Timothy Taylor 16×34

You see what Katz hadn’t realized in the drawing class at Cooper Union was those two lines were really all he needed. He simply hadn’t learned how to control and bend them to his desired specifications. For Alex Katz, the purpose of drawing has rarely been about an illusion created by adding value. Drawing is more about composing with line and finding balance between figure and ground; edge and shape. When you are celebrating surface, is there much need for the illusion of depth suggested by a ground plane? Not really. Alex Katz has since managed to run so far and fast through the field of realism that his feet seem to hardly touch the ground. He has stayed ahead of the curve, never lingering in one place long enough to cast much of a shadow.

While it may be hard to imagine today, there have been moments when Katz was not universally revered as a draftsman. But if this show has taught us anything, it’s that Alex Katz has managed to slip on his running shoes and outdistance his critics and competitors. His inner voice appears to be the most important voice in his life: one that has kept him on the path and traveling from point to point, and station to station, for more than 70 years. WM

David Ambrose

David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.

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