Alex Katz, Jeannie Credit: Courtesy Richard Gray Gallery

Alex Katz
—whose drawings are the subject of a retrospective at Richard Gray’s Chicago and New York galleries—is one of the most successful artists alive, but I’m baffled as to why that’s the case. Coming of age during the era of abstract expressionism and pop art, Katz carved out a niche with his flat, billboard-style drawings and paintings of his friends and family and their surroundings. His subjects couldn’t be picked out of a lineup, his landscapes aren’t on any map—he’s not much for specifics. But many of the paintings are bright and take up a lot of space, which must be pleasing to the rare collector who can afford one.

The current show, whose Chicago portion can be seen on the 38th floor of the Hancock Building, is sadly lacking both color and scale. The exhibit consists of a dozen or so portraits drawn with charcoal and graphite; the overall effect is one of quiet, reverent absence. The gray walls, soft lighting, and professional framing account for most of this, because there’s not much going on on the actual sheets of paper. Each one has eyes, nose, ears, and a mouth, but otherwise one would be hard-pressed to tell any of these people apart, save for a hat on one subject or short hair on another. They’re the affluent relations of a stick figure.

Left with no way to connect on an emotional level, I’m left to consider these drawings on a formal level. I still come up empty. Katz’s marks aren’t remarkable in any way; there’s no visual tension of any kind in the compositions. There’s more pictorial attraction in the watermarks at the edges of the expensive paper he uses than anything that he’s done to that paper after buying it.

Alex Katz, <i>Eric</i>
Alex Katz, EricCredit: Courtesy Richard Gray Gallery

After quickly scanning the room, I forced myself to stay another 15 or 20 minutes, almost as a meditation exercise, to try and find something to latch on to. The faces look placidly cowlike, and the tasteful, blond wood frames offered me little. I tried to imagine what the world would look like if it were drawn by Katz. Nothing would have a texture or blemish, no one would be able to tell one place or person from another, and we’d all spend existence at some cocktail party set in a featureless void. It would be a bland, mannequin-filled dystopian nightmare.

The one part of Katz’s work that has any energy is his use of color. Every now and then a yellow comes up against a blue, and there’s actually a little vibration. The drawings at Richard Gray don’t have that luxury. Nobody acknowledged my presence for the 20 or so minutes I spent there. It all felt like an elaborate con: The tastefully minimal room filled with barely drawn drawings. Perhaps not the emperor’s new clothes, but only because were he drawn by Alex Katz there would be nothing to cover up.

“Present Tense: Sixty Years of Master Drawings.” Through 4/22: Mon-Fri 10 AM-5:30 PM, Richard Gray Gallery, 875 N. Michigan, #3800, 312-642-8877,