Ambitious, elegant, impersonal, large in scale, and simultaneously both timeless and reﬂective of its time—these, according to Katz, are the qualities of “high style” in painting. Believing, he has said, that “you have no power unless you have traditional elements in your pictures,” Katz integrates familiar traditions with avant-garde practice. Passing belongs to a venerable genre—it is a self-portrait—but it has the scale of Abstract Expressionism. The work is among Katz’s first big paintings, which he deliberately imbued with what he has termed the “aggressive and intimidating” qualities of billboards.
The ground in Passing is a ﬂat monochrome, and Katz’s face and shoulders are so simpliﬁed that it is mainly their clarity as parts of a ﬁgure that insinuates their volume. Neither smiling nor frowning, Katz meets our gaze frankly. He appears in the guise of a well-dressed businessman, and he has taken care to depict each element of his elegant uniform: the perfect ellipse of the hat brim; the asymmetry in the height of the shoulders; the limited palette, all near-ﬂat blacks, whites, and grays. Far from the cliché of the bohemian artist, Katz looks coolly imperturbable in his dapper suit and hat. Though the work is plainly a self-portrait, the title may suggest that here Katz is also passing as a kind of everyman.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)