ARTS: EXHIBITIONS: Pretentious? Lui?

The catalogue compares Alex Katz to Courbet. Billboard ads, more like

ALEX KATZ'S paintings appear to be the work of a youngish man; but in fact he's a senior, indeed veteran artist, now in his 69th year. The pictures look young because they are stylish, interested in fashion, and painted with naivety as well as skill. They also show a lack of interest in maturity. Katz reached his signature style at the end of the 1950s, and since that time there has been no major development in his art, let alone a deepening of its thought. The exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery presents 25 years of Katz's painting. It's hard to say which are the earlier and which are the later works. They might all have been painted a quarter of a century ago, or they might have been painted yesterday.

This unchanging kind of picture makes Katz into an American classic, though not a classic of an elevated sort. You would have thought that, in a country in which fashion moves so rapidly, Katz's paintings - especially of the female form, which is his speciality - would soon look dated. They do not. His smart women with expensive clothes, scarlet lipstick, much mascara and dramatic hats have a kind of timeless Manhattan chic. Clothes and swimsuits are important. Katz can't paint the nude, and he has been wise to avoid the undraped figure. He would give himself away, for Katz is not really a figure painter at all. He is a painter of modern women in their get-up. Katz reminds me more than a little of the photographer Richard Avedon (his near-contemporary), another person who catches and crystallises style but cannot manage the nude. Katz, however, is more of an artist than Avedon.

For obvious reasons, Katz is connected with Pop Art. Katz became a celebrity at the same time as the Pop artists, and there are similarities of technique and subject-matter. Yet I cannot imagine him in an exhibition alongside Lichtenstein, Wesselman or even Rosenquist. He might seem more at home in the company of such older American realists as Fairfield Porter, George Tooker or Ben Shahu. The differences are that Katz shows no social conviction, avoids references to time and place, and paints on a far larger scale than they did. The bigness of Katz's paintings is a matter of both instinct and necessity. The feeling for size comes from the general expansion of American canvases after Abstract Expressionism. The need for a large picture is dictated by Katz's wrist and eye. He can't feel depth or model forms with tonal variation. Katz's brush does what he wants but is incapable of delicacy. He's a painter whose touch has to be dry and widespread. Little wonder that his major influence is the billboard.

No doubt this has endeared him to the Saatchi Gallery. The exhibition catalogue, much inclined to overpraise, talks about Katz while also mentioning Pollock, Courbet, Matisse, Piero della Francesca and other Renaissance mural painters. This is pretentious. Billboards were much more important to the growing artist. They combined glamour and the common touch. Furthermore, American advertisements in Katz's young days were simultaneously innocent and knowing. Nudes were not to be seen, though sexual attraction was a theme. Such adverts stressed youthfulness, and perhaps advertising in general is forever youthful. For surely there is no such thing as a mature advertisement? Katz's liking for painting people who are just emerging from adolescence into early manhood or (more often) womanhood is noticeable, and may be interpreted as part of the American dream.

Not a comment on that dream. Katz's paintings are free of opinions. Though they are works of art, you don't get much idea of the artist's aesthetic preferences. Human intercourse of various sorts is observed, but not assessed. The hand-in-hand people of Summer Triptych have been blanched of their emotions. In the beach parties recorded by Lincolnville, Labor Day or Round Hill, the leisured loungers have little to do with each other. Uneasy with multi-figure paintings, Katz often divides his compositions into diptychs or triptychs, or repeats motifs in the same picture. These are generally his weaker canvases.

The surprise of the show is the Katz's landscapes. They reveal more feeling for art than his figure works, yet it is certain that if Katz were exclusively a landscapist he would have no reputation at all. Or only the limited reputation of Neil Wolliver (born 1929; Katz was born in 1927), who for years has painted views of the Maine wilderness. Katz also lives in Maine when he's not in New York. I think there's a connection between these artists. Katz's landscapes are too contrived, but their very existence implies that he's a regional American painter of a decent old-fashioned sort.

Elsewhere in London, the Whitechapel Gallery presents the German artist Thomas Schutte. His exhibition has four elements. There are grotesque figures, both large and small; photographs of the heads of grotesque figures, which look as if they have been made from wax; some banal portrait drawings; and a series of spoof architectural models. These are his better works. Caricature in art has long since lost its interest. Sculpture that deals with architecture is a promising and relatively unexplored area.

! Alex Katz: Saatchi, NW8 (0171 624 8299), to 12 Apr. Thomas Schutte: Whitechapel, E1 (0171 522 7878), to 15 Mar.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London