When Vincent van Gogh said that his “The Night Cafe”(1888) shows “a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime,” he indicated that his paintings dig beneath the surface, that they can reveal what’s hidden.

It’s hard to imagine a painter less like van Gogh than Alex Katz, whose work is all about staying on the surface. Gathering, which fills the Guggenheim’s ramps and two of the side galleries, is a comprehensive survey of his six decades of art making. “Ella Marion in Red Sweater” (1946) and the subway drawings from the late 1940s are modest, surprisingly subdued pieces. But by the 1950s Katz found himself in landscapes like “Pink Sky” (1955), with its intense pale greens and pink. And soon enough, as in “10 AM” (1959), he discovered his signature portrait style of large, flat figures on the surface of monochromatic backgrounds. The “Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg” (1959), with Rauschenberg shown mirrored because Jasper Johns refused to participate, is a perfect example. The artist faces us, seated in front of two windows that look like framed monochromatic pictures. Color field painting meets elegant portraiture — that was Katz’s successful formula. His portraits, more varied in the poses than Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits, are almost as impersonal. Katz’s attractive subjects have no visible conflicts. 

These portraits became larger in the 1960s and in some cases the compositions were more elaborate. “Paul Taylor Dance Company” (1963–64) depicts eight dancers in varied poses. I was less impressed with Katz’s many cut-outs, his ingenious freestanding paintings on aluminum that literalize his fascination with surfaces. But I was astonished by some of the recent landscapes, which are much more varied than the formulaic portraits. “Fog” (2015), for example, transcends his concern with surfaces, as does “Rain” (1989) and “Grass 6” (2017). And so does the great “Yellow Tree 1″ (2020). These are all-over images of natural scenes, without any reference to the glamorous people of his portraits. Katz’s late style is sometimes remarkably supple.

After I left the Guggenheim, I saw an ad for a Broadway show on a bus and, without reflection, said to myself, “just like Katz’s portraits.” When later I read Arthur Danto’s characterization of an earlier Katz retrospective, “agreeable … but not stirring,” I agreed. Katz is ultimately a splendid artist but too often his work is merely superficial. 

Yet sometimes a small detail in an artwork can change everything, not just in your sense of that one work, but also in how you view a larger exhibition. That happened to me when I studied the catalogue more closely. I was looking at “Round Hill” (1977), in which five youngish men and women are sunbathing. A surprising detail caught my eye. The woman on the far right is reading a paperback edition of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. The use of books within pictures, familiar in old master art, isn’t found elsewhere, so far as I can see, in the Katz exhibition. But this appearance of a book about a woman’s decisive role in an epic war — the ways it can be unpacked in the context of the painted scene and the broader world, in 1977 and today — inevitably inflects my perception of the entire exhibition. Something hidden is hinted at for anyone who looks closely. And what this little detail reveals is that sometimes what is right on the surface can change our understanding of the whole.

Alex Katz, “Round Hill” (1977), oil on linen, 71 inches x 96 inches (© 2022 Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Barry and Julie Smooke)
Alex Katz, “Yellow Tree 1” (2020), oil on linen, 72 inches x 72 inches (© 2022 Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, photo courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery; Private Collection, Republic of Korea)
Installation view of Alex Katz: Gathering, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (© Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York; photo by Ariel Ione Williams and Midge Wattles)

Alex Katz: Gathering continues at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 20. The exhibition was organized by Katherine Brinson with Terra Warren, and with additional support from Andrea Zambrano.

David Carrier’s most recent books are Art Writing Online: The State of the Art World and Philosophical Skepticism as the Subject of Art: Maria Bussmann’s Drawings. His book In Caravaggio’s Shadow:...