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As his third exhibition at Gavin Brown, Alex Katz demonstrates a progression of a discovery he made in the fifties, producing a series of 15 cutout portraits painted on an aluminum base. Back in 1959, unhappy with the background of a painting, Katz found himself removing it altogether from one of his famous flattened-style portraits. Instead of creating another background in its place, Katz decided to let the figure in the foreground stand alone, leaving it as one of his first in a rare series, the cutout. 

Walking into this exhibition, I couldn’t help but think of those little cutout paper dolls. As they only exist in their own two dimensional world, the portraits are mounted and free-standing in the gallery, positioned within our three-dimensional space. The cutouts are still paintings, but are experienced differently than if hung on a wall. You walk around it, and discover their backs, sometimes they’re painted, and sometimes not. Some are paired with others, some stand alone. Whether it is his daughter-in-law and his son, his wife or his assistant, the subjects are all close to the painter. Bringing his reality into a playful world of painting, each set of portraits is placed in conversation with itself, and given its own little world.

The scale of these portraits can be close to life, but most are arbitrary — some are bigger than others to aid in their detachment from the viewer’s eye. Thor Shannon, a gallery assistant at Gavin Brown, took me around the show and pointed out the shadows that the aluminum stands generate in the gallery, creating a three dimensional presence inside the space — ironic for a painter known for his heavily flattening painting technique.

But this aspect of Katz’s body of work only reaffirms the flatness of the surface of painting, as the flat aluminum is used just like a traditional canvas. This intentional play between different dimensions is meant to toy with the medium of painting, testing the Greenbergian notion of modernist painting, which cites that flatness is unique to its medium. Indeed, Katz takes his embodiment of the flatness of painting to its very limit, by putting it on a base, which is usually reserved for sculptures. In addition, everything superfluous in a painting has been removed, such as the backgrounds, which are gone.

These important details change the viewer’s contact with the work, as it becomes experiential and subjective: the viewer’s background becomes the sculpture’s background and he or she can be “behind the scenes” with the artist by walking around the pieces. Here, Katz's real accomplishment, beyond his already much acclaimed painting skills, is to have created a new experience of viewership with this body of work.