A Romantic in an Ironic Era

Herbert Katzman at the Museum of the City of New York.

Herbert Katzman is a forgotten man, a painter to whom the future once pledged fame, then reneged on its promise, leaving him unknown to all but a few. It’s a familiar narrative, yet each story is unique, contingent on the confluence of talent and fashion, context and vision.

Katzman, who died in 2004, has been rescued from years of neglect by the Museum of the City of New York, where his brooding views of New York Harbor and his fiery, vaporous skies span the gallery’s horizon. He was a romantic in an era of irony and detachment, temperamentally at odds with the tenor of the world he tried to navigate. His desire for loveliness barely registered with his contemporaries, the successive generations of abstract, pop, minimalist, conceptualist, earth and performance artists, who shared a high-flown disdain for paintings of clouds. Even the neo-expressionists of the 1980s, who reclaimed outmoded genres with self-conscious irony, didn’t know what to make of his sincerity.

Katzman grew up in Chicago and after studying at the Art Institute in the 1940s, he went to Paris, where he perfected a style that blended Soutine’s meaty layers of palpable pigment with the barbarous colour of the fauves. Spires, arches, and embankments shrieked alongside abysses of greenish river water. He made lavish use of the palette knife, building up turbulent surfaces that bore the marks of existential struggle. “Troughs and crests seem almost like a frozen sea,” remarked the New York Times. When he returned to the U.S. in 1950, he painted the Brooklyn Bridge as a thick, ropy shadow, holding fast a skyline that seems undecided whether to plunge into a turbid harbor or burst into a bilious sky.

In New York, Katzman winged his way from one success to another. He was taken on by the prestigious Downtown Gallery, which is where the Museum of Modern Art’s fearless curator Dorothy Miller stumbled upon his work. She immediately invited him to take part in Fifteen Americans, the 1952 blowout exhibition featuring Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and other luminaries. The exhibit yanked abstract expressionism out of its clubby village scene and shoved it into the lap of the establishment.

Katzman’s hankerings toward beauty edged near the ab ex painters’ search for the universal sublime. Rothko intimated infinite depths beneath his prettily coloured squares; Katzman did the same with his pregnant twilights, but he shunned abstraction. “I do not paint abstractly because if I give up the appearance of the world I find I am unable to become involved in it,” he wrote. “I like the way the yellow-block sky looks over the Brooklyn Bridge, the way the sun hits a building, or the way my wife looks in an ochre-green dress. These are the important things to me as they are wonderful to paint.”

Katzman’s reluctance to embrace an increasingly popular movement didn’t interfere with his success, at least initially. In the 1950s, honours continued to flow: the Art Institute of Chicago awarded Katzman’s “View of Prague” second place (after de Kooning) in its Annual American round-up. In 1956, he exhibited in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. And his works appeared in every Whitney Museum Annual from 1951 through 1957.

Then Katzman’s star began to fall, and it’s not clear why. This show argues that his reputation suffered from the polarization of the art world. Powerful critics like Clement Greenberg branded realism as passé and even reactionary; Andy Warhol’s gang approved of figuration, but not of emotiveness. But the story is more complicated than that. Some artists resisted the tides of fashion and thrived. Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, Wolf Kahn, Alice Neel and Jane Frielicher all managed to carve expressive niches for themselves in spite of the opposing demand for swirls and grids in one period, gas stations and Marilyns in the next.

Katzman, too, persevered, but to much more meager acclaim. His style evolved. The chunky, vivid surfaces thinned. Form gradually dissolved into atmosphere. Where he had once relished the muscular conjunction of solid form with rich colour, he now basked in monochrome glow. Using chalk on paper, Katzman evoked a city shrouded in smoke and melting into mist. Against the distant backdrop of the skyline, a tugboat chugs or a steamer glides. Yet the action doesn’t take place among solid objects, but among warring currents of air, each with its own density and quality of light. These scenes of New York harbor evoke Whistler’s Venice, where gondolas ply vast waters. The Twin Towers take the place of San Giorgio Maggiore, but the brooding poignancy is the same.

By the late 1990s, Katzman, perhaps weary of his idiosyncratic minimalism, leapt in the opposite direction, toward unabashed gaudiness. Rebuffing Whistler, he embraced Turner’s opulent purples. In these last years, he unleashed sunset after sunset, suffused with magenta, mango, copper and plum.

Surely he was aware that his concerns were antique. Nearly a century earlier, Oscar Wilde opined: “Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset . . . [Sunsets] belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament.”

Katzman didn’t care. A lifetime of pent-up passions finally exploded, giving way to cascades of feeling that evidently still embarrass MoMA, which has a history of appreciating Katzman but let this ravishing retrospective get away.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.