Visual Arts: All at face value and nothing left to the imagination

The art of Alex Katz is all very familiar, all very `cool'. But surely there's more to life than this?

Ah, a Sunday afternoon at the Saatchi Gallery! What a subject for Seurat! Look - the toddlers and the buggies and the couples - the ladies and gentlemen in their discreetly expensive leisure-wear - this is surely London's brighter bourgeoisie en promenade, the Sunday papers walking. Yes, it's often struck me that the Saatchi Gallery of a weekend provides one of those playgrounds for class solidarity that the modern "town" is generally short of: a public place you can go, confident of meeting "people like us", people who are strangers but your kind of people, with whom you share life-styles, world- views and worries, and might share a glance or a smile, get talking to, and find out you have mutual friends or business in common, or just bask in the knowledge that you're safely among peers. Or equally, a subject for Alex Katz, the painter now showing at the Saatchi Gallery.

Katz is 60 and lives on America's East Coast. He paints people (though latterly many landscapes too) and he paints very big pictures. He paints sometimes single figures, sometimes group tableaux, incidents of everyday life, at parties, on the beach, in the office or the cafe, images that, though large, are close-up and tightly cropped. Victorian-minded viewers, looking for busy anecdote, won't have much joy from these scenes: the gestures and expressions here are muted, the stories are inexplicit. Likewise brush-fanciers, for the painting is flat and inexpressive. A word very often attached to Katz's work is "cool".

A swift eye might use harsher words. The drawing is wooden. The transitions from light to shade are implausibly jumpy. Eyes and mouths refuse to stick themselves to their faces. Hands are never quite right. Every trick - the folds of clothing, the streaking of hair, the rendering of a rain drip or blade of grass - is completely formulaic. Every effect is an Illustration for Beginners cliche, briskly managed. If you don't see sheer incompetence here, you're likely to detect irony.

In fact, trying to think what these images were most like, I hit on the illustrations to Cyra McFadden's The Serial, that charming satirical novellette about life in Marin County, California, in the 1970s. Wrong coast, but near enough to Katz in period and mores; and many of the scenes - people hanging out in a leisurely way and having slightly awkward encounters - look very like Katz's. The Serial's illustrations (by Tom Cervenak) were done in photorealism manque, a style that declared its aims, the kind of look it was after, while always failing to make it - just as (this seemed to be the point) the people in the story are always striving to have "real" lives, but failing too.

But those Cervenak pictures were themselves parodies of really low-grade illustrations, the sort that go with serials and short stories in women's magazines - done in the most perfunctory photo-manner, that doesn't even try to simulate a photo, just nods at the form of realism everyone knows. Katz works initially from life, but this photo-derived box of illustrational tricks is the basic style he uses, his home key. It's not ironic.

It's a deliberately limited style, of course, one that's self-conscious about being a style, a repertoire of clear, crude formulas. But one can't call it a parody. Rather, Katz brings it to a surprising intensity. He flattens it further and fills it out with fields of powerful, occasionally beautiful colour. He stresses and isolates his illustrational devices to give them their full say, to allow their elementary artifice a naive directness - believe it, this brown arc is an eyebrow, this plainly outlined red shape with a stroke of highlight is a mouth.

Partly it's an effect of scale: greatly magnified, the mechanism of these devices is nakedly obvious; partly it comes from added formalisation (the way, for instance, he makes the meeting of lips or the edge of a neck into a perfectly straight line); partly from the bold and flattened colour. This array of bog-standard representational formulae is exposed and re- enforced and heightened, so as to achieve an iconic authority. What's missing in psychological depth is made up for in calm, blank mystery.

It's the mystery of face values absolutely accepted. Katz's painting insists that pictorial conventions are all we've got; and that the transparent visibility of these conventions is itself true to life, because that's how life is, a make-up job. Norms and conventions - costume, hair-dos, body-language, the games people play - these are simply what we are. But it's not a satirical strategy, just as Eric Berne's psycho-bestseller The Games People Play isn't a satire, though it often feels it ought to be. It's not that we can stop playing games, the point is to play them more efficiently. And such is Katz's vision. It affirms this state of normality and makes it grandly definitive.

The woman's face in Red Coat, say: a fashion plate, a perfect, beautician- designed composition of elements - and what else are our faces? Or take Summer Triptych. It shows three young couples in the park, each attached to each other in different ways. One pair hold hands, one has arms round shoulder and waist, one has the man's arms round the woman from behind. These people might come from a study of body-language: we know nothing more of them than this typical behaviour. But, of course, we know the types and we know the score. This is the way we live, this is normal. And it's important that Katz's mysteriousness never becomes actually puzzling. The world and its ways must be recognised as familiar.

So his human tableaux are dumb, but always articulable. We don't know exactly what's going on late at the office in Thursday Night, but we can well imagine the kind of thing, we can make up the relevant short story if we can be bothered. (Edward Hopper's Office at Night, by contrast, is filled with an air of enigma that no story could explain.) Again, with the three women caught at a doubtful moment at a drinks party in Trio, or the sunbathers exchanging unreadable glances in Round Hill: make it up if you want. These are people like us, the sort of scenes we might have snapped ourselves.

But this take is simply not true, and no amount of iconic emphasis can make it so. One may honour the attempt to represent contemporary Western existence absolutely on its own terms, while perhaps demurring at the way the life of surface appearances can be promoted to an existential heroism (Hey, this is all we are, we moderns - flat souls, actors, behavers, signifiers, nothing more - and we fearlessly embrace our condition without nostalgia; our flatness is something rather grand). But the important falsity of the vision is its lack of tension. Even face values are not just a given. They too have to be lived up to, and one can fail to do so, sometimes miserably.

I don't criticise Katz for being deficient in a more common form of existential heroism, howling anguish. I merely come back to Cyra McFadden's The Serial and the way it shows its characters trying hard to live their chill-out, hang-loose life-styles and finding that they've only landed themselves with another lot of norms, different from their parents', yes, but ultimately, like all norms, not workable without some strain, dishonesty and grief. That sense of strain is what Katz's work eliminates, utterly and emphatically denies. Everything in this world is just so. It's something you may also feel as you stroll round the Saatchi Gallery on a Sunday afternoon. But you know very well it just isn't.

To 12 April, Saatchi Gallery, 98a Boundary Road, London NW8 (0171-624 8299)

`Whose realism is it anyway?'

"Everything in paint that's representational is false - because it's not representational, it's paint... The way I paint, realistic, is out of abstract painting as opposed to abstract style. So I use a line, a form and a colour. So my contention is that my paintings are as realistic as Rembrandt's. Now, that's supposed to be realistic, but I don't see those dark things around it, I don't see those dark things anywhere. It [Rembrandt's art] was realistic painting in its time. It's no longer realistic painting. Realism's a variable.

"For an artist, this is the highest thing an artist can do - to make something that's real for his time, where he lives. But people don't see it as realistic, they see it as abstract. But for me it's realistic. I mean, do those Impressionist paintings actually look realistic?

"You open Pandora's box when you start off with that. Then you say: Well, then what is realistic? Then I say: Well, maybe my things are as realistic as the next guy's. Giacometti is very realistic, but for his time and place. It's not very realistic in my time and place.

"It has nothing to do with the quality of the art, it's the quality of the vision. And when paintings somehow are no longer realistic, they often become great, great art."

Taken from an interview with Alex Katz by David Sylvester, as published in the Saatchi Gallery's catalogue to its current exhibition