Alex Katz Makes Painting Look Easy at the Guggenheim

An analogous rap on Katz—that his work is too redolent of White, especially WASP, privilege—might offer an explanation. Katz is Jewish, which, as his friend, the African American artist Arthur Jafa argues in the exhibition catalog, places him in a lineage of “Jewish artists rendering whiteness.” Speaking as a filmmaker, Jafa is referring specifically to Jewish pioneers of Hollywood—Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, and Samuel Goldwyn—who offered a homogenized, and very gentile, view of life in their films.

Jafa’s point speaks to a larger impulse throughout Judaism’s history of assimilating and blending in with surrounding communities at the expense of the visible signifiers (yarmulkes, sidelocks) of faith. Yet assimilation is hardly a shield against antisemitism, whether in Germany during the 1930s, or even at this moment.

However, it would be a stretch to say Katz’s work deals with such issues, though a 1962-63 self-portrait of the artist glowering from under a black trilby is suggestively titled Passing. Ultimately, it’s fairer to say that as an artist, Katz is an outsider wearing the mask of an insider whose work takes an aspirational shortcut to a promised land where the sharp edges of fitting in are sanded down by elegance.

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