'Oh, I'll Show You': Paul Taylor and Alex Katz's long collaboration

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'Oh, I'll Show You': Paul Taylor and Alex Katz's long collaboration
Costume sketches by the artist Alex Katz for the choreographer Paul Taylor’s dances, including “Polaris,” “Sunset,” “Diggity” and “Junction,” in New York, Oct. 5, 2022. There were egos and clashes, but the choreographer and the artist made 16 dances together over more than 50 years, work spotlighted in the Taylor company’s season. Julieta Cervantes/The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- Painter Alex Katz had an idea for a dance. He was at a park in Spain in the 1970s, and the way some young soldiers were flirting with young women reminded him of America in the 1940s.

“I wanted to show the optimism of those young people,” Katz recently recalled.

He talked about the idea with choreographer Paul Taylor, who proceeded to make a now-beloved dance called “Sunset” with sets and costumes by Katz. But while Katz had been thinking of a light piece, like “Guys and Dolls,” Taylor “made it into youth and death, into the descent from the cross,” Katz said. “I thought it was terrific.”

That was how things tended to go in their collaboration, which yielded 16 dances over more than 50 years, from 1960 to 2015. “There were lots of clashes, violent clashes,” Katz said. But also an overlap of sensibilities and a leapfrogging of artist egos.

This dynamic produced what dance critic Arlene Croce once called “shimmering ambiguity.” In these works, the flatness of painting is in tension with the in-the-roundness of moving bodies. The surface is bright, even banal, but something is off or sending mixed messages. The incongruities can be humorous or unsettling or both. The energy of the clash is what shimmers.

Katz, 95, was speaking at the Guggenheim Museum, which is presenting a major eight-decade retrospective of his work. His collaborations with Taylor, who died in 2018, aren’t a central theme in that exhibition, but they are in “Alex Katz: Theater and Dance,” which runs through February at the Colby College Museum of Art in Maine. And during the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s two-week season at Lincoln Center (which starts Tuesday), four classic Taylor-Katz collaborations, including “Sunset,” are spread across various programs, as well as collected in an all-Taylor-Katz evening (on Nov. 9).

Recounting his long association with Taylor, Katz spoke with a rival’s affection. “Paul was an egomaniac,” he said, smiling mischievously. (This from an artist who recently told a writer interviewing him for a profile, “I think I’m better than anyone.”)

“Guys like that are usually windbags,” Katz continued. “Paul wasn’t. His amazing observation of people was the opposite of ego. I don’t think he had too much taste, but he was more cognizant of style than any person I know. And he wasn’t afraid to change his mind, at the right time. I learned that from him, not to be afraid.”

Michael Novak, who took over as artistic director of the Taylor company at Taylor’s death, described the interaction between Taylor and Katz as one always telling the other, “Oh, I’ll show you.”

Once, when Taylor was asked what it was like to collaborate with Katz, his answer was: “We don’t collaborate. He makes obstacles and I have to overcome them.”

“That’s what he says,” Katz responded at the Guggenheim. “I say, I gave him opportunities.”

In a catalog essay for the Colby exhibition, artist David Salle identifies three great visual artist-choreographer collaborations in 20th-century American dance: Isamu Noguchi and Martha Graham, Robert Rauschenberg and Merce Cunningham, Katz and Taylor. Where Rauschenberg and Cunningham were all about aloof indeterminacy and flux, Salle argues, Taylor and Katz were accessible populists concerned with style.

But before there was Katz and Taylor, there was Rauschenberg and Taylor. Rauschenberg provided sets and costumes for some of Taylor’s earliest works, including for the notorious “7 New Dances” concert in 1957, a collection of what-is-dance-anyway avant-garde experiments composed of postures taken from the street and long minutes of total stillness. For one selection, Rauschenberg contributed a live dog as a set piece.

For a work conceived a few years later, though, Rauschenberg proposed that Taylor wear a still life on his back, an idea Taylor rejected. “And Bob says, ‘How can you reject such a great idea?’” Katz said. “And Paul said, ‘Easy.’ And they parted company.”

Taylor needed a new designer, pronto, for a work about to premiere at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, part of his European debut as a choreographer. Poet and dance critic Edwin Denby suggested Katz for the job.

Katz had met Denby through the filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt. An avid social dancer, Katz invited Burckhardt to the Palladium Ballroom in New York, home of the mambo, and Burckhardt brought Denby, who didn’t dance but asked Katz questions about the dancing. “And that started our friendship,” Katz said. “I saw Edwin almost every day for eight years.”

Denby took Katz to see Taylor dance. “I thought Paul was fantastically athletic,” Katz said. “I had friends who were jocks and couldn’t do what he could do. I told Edwin, ‘It’s very physical and very intellectual and nothing else.’ And he said, ‘What else do you want?’”

When Denby proposed Katz as a set designer for Taylor, it was “a surprise to me,” Katz said, adding: “But I had opinions about everything, and I didn’t like the way dance was lit, dark and arty, from another time. Old stuff — like existentialism, Freud, politics — wasn’t interesting. I liked basketball and dancing and doing art work. There had been a turn in the culture, and Paul was on the right side.”

By that point, Katz had already painted Taylor. The portrait was in a style — an isolated figure against a flat background — that was becoming a signature. “Paul dictated the pose,” Katz said. “I later realized he got it from Watteau. Paul was very educated visually.”

Before Taylor began to pursue dance, he studied painting, and he later wrote that he thought of the proscenium of a stage like a frame. The lesson he said he learned from the “7 New Dances” experiments — that posture and gesture, even if presented objectively, read as dramatic — was a painter’s lesson as much as a choreographer’s, and the poses and compositions in “7 New Dances” look like nothing so much as the portraits made around the same time by Katz.

“It’s very similar,” Katz said. “Gestures and motion, we had that in common.”

Taylor must have liked Katz’s designs for their first work together, “Meridian,” because he asked Katz to do another. For “Junction,” Katz wanted to “accelerate the motion,” he said. He put bright colors on each side of the costumes, so that when the dancers spun, the colors rotated. He hung strips of red ribbon across the backdrop to help the eye register speed.

At the 1961 premiere of “Junction,” Katz said, the whole art world was there and cheering: “I never had that before. It was one of the great kicks of my life.”

Rauschenberg told him, “You showed Paul as he really is,” he said. “I don’t know whether it was a compliment.”

From early on, Katz would propose and Taylor swerve. For the 1963 work “Scudorama,” the earliest on the Lincoln Center programs, Katz wanted to “make Paul look like he was straight from the barbecue pit,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Invented Symbols.” But Taylor took this playful sendup of bad taste — plaid jackets, beach blankets — and made something comic but also dark and disturbing.

Katz, in turn, made a painting of “Scudorama,” titled “Paul Taylor Dance Company.” The practice of painting dances, especially those he has designed, is one Katz has kept up. Why? “Free models,” he joked. But also: “I’m interested in compositions. I’m trying to paint the sensation of what you’re seeing, gestures and motion.”

Katz’s designs for Taylor had some consistent features. One was flat, white light, usually designed by Jennifer Tipton. (“Jennifer was a big part of the success of those pieces,” Katz said.) Another was what Katz called “killing the center.”

“Paul would get in the center and jump three times, and it’s a big success,” Katz said. “So you kill the center and it forces him to rethink his choreography.”

For “Private Domain” (1969), Katz hung a curtain at the front of the stage with three columnar holes; depending on where you sat in the audience, different parts of what the dancers did in shiny bathing suits were obscured or revealed. (The idea was inspired by the windows in the apartment behind Katz’s loft.) For “Foreign Exchange” (1970), Katz blocked center stage with fake boulders.

For “Polaris” (1976), Katz killed the center with an open-sided aluminum cube. Taylor reacted ingeniously: working inside and outside the cube, presenting the same choreography twice with different music each time. Taylor also replaced Katz’s costumes, and this did not please Katz.

Katz said, “I told Paul, ‘I like having dinner with you, but I’m not going to make sets for you until you burn those costumes and bring me the ashes.’”

It took two years, but Taylor did just that. Katz responded with his most charming obstacle: 35 metal cutouts of dogs in different poses, one modeled on Taylor’s own pet.

Cutouts had become another signature of Katz’s gallery work: an extension of the flatness in his portraits crossed with the theatrical notion of a “flat,” a two-dimensional set piece. Much of the fun in Taylor’s “Diggity” lies in watching the dancers cavort at high speed through the obstacle course of dogs. But there’s also much wit in how they sometimes pause and pose, looking like cutouts themselves. (The other set piece, a giant “flat” of a cabbage, was Taylor’s idea.)

With the rift behind them, Katz and Taylor continued their mischief. “I said to Paul, ‘You’re so good you could choreograph to elevator music,’” Katz recalled. “And Paul said, ‘I’m not dancing to that trash.’ And three months later, he said let’s do it.” This was “Lost, Found, and Lost” (1982), a brilliantly funny piece with chic black costumes, a flat white stage world and recycled bits of “7 New Dances.”

Then came “Sunset” — his favorite, Katz said. His set cuts off both the back of the stage and one whole side with drops painted to suggest branches and leaves. It’s a decentered, asymmetrical arrangement, with a guardrail. The men wear khaki uniforms and red berets; the women, 1940s summer dresses. The dance never stops looking like an Alex Katz painting.

“You kind of get absorbed into the painting,” said Novak, who performed in “Sunset” revivals. “You feel the flatness and abstraction, but also realism and layers, and I guess you could say a soul.”

The provocation of “Sunset” is the banality of the situation that Katz proposed: soldiers and girls. And the boldness of Taylor’s response is how he takes it seriously enough to risk sentimentality: soldiers and the girls they’re about to leave. The sadness is in the subtext. The gestures and motion are part naturalistic, part abstract, and emotion rushes in. “Sunset” is a dance that reliably makes viewers cry.

A crucial part of what evokes that response is the strange moment when the plangent music (Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings” and “Elegy for Strings”) is replaced by a recording of loon calls. Loons! What a crazy, potentially sabotaging idea! Who could have suggested it? The painter who designed the costumes and set.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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