“The portrait form is where the challenge is. It’s much easier to make a ‘modern’ picture outside of the form.” – Alex Katz
In Jennifer and Mathieu, the American artist Alex Katz revitalizes the historic genre of portraiture through the intimate embrace of two larger-than-lifefigures. Rendered in a luminous palette of bold red, dark colors and flesh tones, the painting displays the artist’s recognizable mature style, which he had been developing since the early 1960s. The painter’s interest in the combination of color and emotion, together with a splash of popular culture, developed out of the worlds of Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting and Pop Art. Well versed in art history ranging from Egyptian figuration and Japanese woodcuts to Old Masters and French painters, Katz has inventively combined these different approaches while retaining his commitment to creating original and stylish portraiture (Tom E. Hinson, “Alex Katz’s Impala, ” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 73, no.8, October 1986, pp.315-316).
In this large-scale painting, the suggestion of volume is achieved through the interaction of colors, rather than detailed modelling reflective of three-dimensional realism. Noted for their sharp edges, smooth surfaces and flat shapes, these colors assert a degree of autonomy and corporeality. Katz has made colors that are not only able to describe, but also to speak and to tell. They chronicle the appearance of the figures as well as their gesture and emotions. Contrasting and analogous colors draw attention to their intimacy and romance, which would be further accentuated by other formal concerns of composition, format, and scale.
The moment of intimacy between Jennifer and Mathieu evokes a multitude of emotions associated with romance; namely those of passion, obsession, uncertainty, and mystery. Traces of its complexity can be found in the figures’ exchange of gazes as well as their gesture. Compared to the man, the woman appears more proactive: she gazes upwards wistfully, focusing solely on her lover as she awaits his reciprocal expression. Her left arm, moreover, coils around the man’s neck, drawing him closer. The intensity of their romantic exchange highlights how Katz reconciled the tensions of recording the vitality and the emotions of the real, three dimensional world onto a two-dimensional surface.
Different from many of Katz’s single-figure portraits, which are usually set against an unbroken field of color, the painting is notable for its elimination of background. It seems to have been cropped willfully to concentrate on the center of activity. The artist’s employment of cropping and the close-up views of people is linked to contemporary fascination with advertising, comic strips and movies. Large billboards showcasing familiar tropes in cinematic and visual arts prevailed in New York City in the 1950s and early 1960s. By appropriating these images and turning them into portraits of increased scale, Katz enhances the painting’s theatrical effect and provides the viewers with a sense of context in conjunction with the external circumstances upon which the work functions.