Dancing in Mirrors: Alex Katz, Race, and the Guggenheim Trip

After attending a symposium on Alex Katz at the Guggenheim Museum, Dominic Bellido ’24 critically reflects on how race and representation in the collections shape student engagement with the Colby Museum of Art.


Si quieres tú bailar / si quieres aprender
Debes sacar las manos / y luego sacar los pies

If you want to dance / if you want to learn
Take out our hands / and then your feet

—From “Saca las Manos” by Eva Ayllón

In a hall of mirrors, my first instinct is to dance. It’s strange—when it’s only me and the version of myself behind the glass, I feel conscious of the way my body moves. I stick out my arm, I trace the ground with my foot; whatever I do, the reflection follows.

This double dance is what drew me to the recreated mirror set pieces of Last Look (1985) at the center of the Colby Museum’s newly-deinstalled Alex Katz: Theater and Dance exhibition. Each time I entered the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz, I looked for my twin partner in the polished metal. To me, those mirrors exemplified how visual art and dance can act as an infinite dialogue between the body and mind. They reminded me that the simple presence of a viewer is all an artwork needs to create meaning. Just standing in front of a piece like Katz’s Pas de Deux (1983) will make you subconsciously absorb each pose, the many possible arrangements of limbs.

It’s this creative potential that Colby student dancers, along with Professors Annie Kloppenberg and Matthew Cumbie, expressed in their choreography based on Katz’s Pas de Deux. Watching the students perform in front of the actual art in the fall was stunning. The museum floor was transformed into a stage for their interpretations, making space for the subtle nuances lying dormant in the painting. Their dance became a vehicle to make contact with the inner contours of the piece, to the emotions contained within those two-dimensional eyes of Katz’s subjects.

With beauty and grace, the Colby students accomplished their project in a way that replicated Katz’s ambition to “compress everything into a single burst of energy.”1 Their work fulfilled my expectations of what a teaching museum should offer—opportunities for students to creatively connect with the art. But when the music stopped, and all the students of color left the stage, I felt their absence echo throughout the more than seven thousand square feet of the Schupf Wing. 

The end of their performance made me reckon with the arrays of white faces hanging in the background of the mirrors I danced in. Apart from Bill 2 (2019), nearly every painting in the Theater and Dance show depicted one or several white subjects taken from the roving cast of characters inhabiting Katz’s life. The Schupf Wing is one of the rare places in our museum where I notice the lack of diversity, where I feel the same way I’ve felt when entering classrooms at Colby as the only non-white student.

This is not to say that the lack of representation is intentional or detracts from the quality of his art. Not at all; there is much to be learned from the artist who is “in the vanguard of painting today.”2 But, in talking with other Colby students who have also spent time in the Theater and Dance show, I have heard of sentiments similar to mine.

On one hand, some will assert that Katz’s art—and by extension, its presentation in the Schupf Wing—is purposefully void of politics, but I disagree. A teaching museum exists within a social fabric, moderated by the curators, who ultimately decide which pieces are chosen and which are not. These modes of choice are always mediated by the larger racial, social, and political contexts surrounding the agents of choice. A similar logic applies to the creative tasks of artists, for they are, at times, the sole actors playing on their chosen stages.

The Schupf Wing’s emotional effect on students can be understood through a closer look at the predominantly white history of leadership at Colby.  After Alex Katz himself gave more than four-hundred pieces of his works to the museum in 1992, former Colby trustee Paul J. Schupf contributed funding to a wing that would house the rapidly-expanding Katz collection. Thus, the origin of one of the largest gallery spaces in our museum can be traced back to the generosity of Schupf and Katz, who both sought to “enhance the museum’s mission as a teaching institution.”3 Yet, as a student who has spent the better part of a year wandering through the vast contours of our museum, I’ve noticed a significant lack of historical information within the Schupf Wing. It is hard to find texts on the walls that elaborate on the educational justification of the wing’s creation, and little space is devoted to any student or outside interpretations of the displayed art. If I walk away with this impression of the Schupf Wing, then what can be said of the student who visits our museum only once before they graduate? What of the visitors who come only once in their lives?

Such choices, however small and well intentioned, can ring out in perpetuating the lack of representations at our school. In this light, it is important to understand how cultural accessibility affects the student body’s engagement with our museum. Alex Katz himself has stated in an interview for the opening of the Schupf Wing that “art is for all people and should be accessible to all people. . . An artist really cheats himself if he doesn’t make his work accessible.”4

Therefore, in the spirit of working as a writer for our teaching museum, I must raise certain questions: what has been left out of this conversation regarding the intersections between art and dance? How can decentering whiteness in art allow for students from all parts of the campus to engage with our museum?

Alex Katz, Bill 2, 2019. Mural project highlighting Katz’s portraiture of Bill T. Jones. Image of billboard on 7540 Fay Avenue, Murals of La Jolla.

In reality, it was a New York trip that sparked these questions in my mind. At the start of February, I accompanied a diverse group of Colby students, professors, and Museum staff to attend a symposium held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The event, titled “That Various Field: Alex Katz’s Creative Communities and the Field of Interdisciplinary Collaboration,” welcomed attendees and panelists to discuss Katz’s work and unlikely partnerships in art, dance, and other mediums.

There, we also got to see the debut screening of Opting to Be Pulled (2022), a film from Maine’s Portland Ballet that expanded upon the Colby students’ original Pas de Deux choreography. It was a long and stimulating day: we witnessed poetry readings, presentations, and panel discussions moderated by the Colby Museum’s Katz Consulting Curator, Levi Prombaum, and Katherine Brinson of the Guggenheim’s curatorial staff.

In particular, I was struck by the working philosophies of two of the panelists, artists Shantell Martin and Shahzia Sikander. Both discussed their approaches to contesting the predominantly white, Western conceptions of visual and performing arts. Martin talked about unraveling power dynamics by collaboratively creating the choreography for her ballet, KITES.5 When I asked her if she also applied a boundary-pushing methodology for the music selection, she said that she wanted to introduce non classical songs to the audience, but was advised against including contemporary music in order to appeal to the traditional taste of the ballet audience.

Later on, Sikander similarly discussed her radical method of creating art that “demands . . . we understand ‘tradition,’ ‘culture,’ and ‘identity’ as impure, heterogeneous, unstable, and always in process . . .”6 I believe her bronze sculpture, Promiscuous Intimacies, brilliantly demonstrates how the inclusion/intrusion of non-Western designs destabilizes the geographical and artistic boundaries we arbitrarily draw.

Photo of Shahzia Sikander's bronze sculpture, Promiscuous Intimacies
Shahzia Sikander, Promiscuous Intimacies, 2020. Patinated bronze, 42 x 24 x 18 in. Collection of the artist, © Shahzia Sikander. Courtesy: the artist, Sean Kelly, New York and Pilar Corrias, London.

These ideas flowed through my mind all the way to the symposium’s end, at which point we were set free to wander around the Alex Katz: Gathering show. I left the auditorium wholly unprepared to encounter the massive size of the gallery. One hundred and fifty-four artworks over six floors! Wide-eyed, I ambled up the grand, spiraling floors of the rotunda, admiring the clean, white walls that “unspool[ed] up the ramp[s] like a film . . . each bay functioning as a frame or two.”7 It was my first time ever seeing anything in the Guggenheim, and the height of the ceiling alone left a lasting impression.

Yet, as I walked, I felt the symposium conversations circling my mind. The wide-open spaces of the Gathering show reminded me of the immense scale of the Schupf Wing in the Colby Museum, of our collection of nearly nine hundred Katz works. I considered the amount of time, space, and energy that both exhibitions must take to maintain. Since the Colby Museum is part of a small, liberal-arts college, such considerable attention given to Katz gives the sense of outsized importance to only one form of dance in art.

Consider the consequences for a teaching museum that allocates hefty resources on the exhibition and care for the works of one white, male artist. I argue that this lack of representation gives way to a more critical problem of limiting the chances to teach fundamental histories of dance and art. This gives the impression of a singular priority for our museum, running the risk of overrepresenting the educational interests of one segment of the student population. For example, where, in our museum, was the opportunity to consider the integral role of African American influence on contemporary dance while Theater and Dance was on view?8 How can acquisitions of certain Black and Indigenous art start this dialogue? And what about a discussion on the Latino music that many Colby students listen to, like Bad Bunny, or Cumbia, Salsa, Bachata—all of which are examples of how Latinos use dance to resist colonizer influence.9 You get the point; the list goes on.

This is not to say that these artists or art forms should replace or override any of Katz’s works. Not at all; in fact, placing these kinds of diverse dance styles or art forms beside paintings like Ada’s Black Sandals (1987) or the 1991 Junction sketches can foster countless intellectual dialogues, as shown by the Pas de Deux dance or Sikander’s Promiscuous Intimacies. Not only would more students feel represented by the collection, but these cultural exchanges would highlight the larger creative threads that weave our communities together.

This shift in pedagogy for the Schupf Wing would ultimately align with our museum’s goal of creating “a place for education and engagement with local, national, and global communities.”10 The wing is now in a transitional stage for its reinstallation. Given this unique position, how might we all reflect upon the past to inform the present? Who knows how many more students would enter our museum if they felt their own voices reflected in the galleries? We can never know until we act.

Photo of Alex Katz's Night: William Dunas Dance Company #3
Alex Katz, Night: William Dunas Dance Company #3, 1983. Lithograph in 13 colors on Arches Cover Paper Printers: John C. Erickson And Jos. 25 in. x 31 1/4 in. (63.5 cm x 79.38 cm). Gift of the artist, 1995.416.


In the end, some may feel that art should not “tell the viewer what to think.”11 Some may say that there is no moral or ethical requirement for art to speak on social issues. I partially agree, but given the resources this wealthy educational institution has, it is infinitely easier for Colby to include more artists in our conversations.

Some may not understand anything that I’m saying. Yet, I trust the sanity of this song; and if it fades, it may well be in answer to the persistence of our internal drumming, to the silence that has kept it from reaching you.

1. Jill Krementz. “Jill Krementz Photo Journal: ‘Alex Katz: Gathering’ at the Guggenheim Museum.” New York Social Diary, October 27, 2022. https://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/jill-krementz-covers-alex-katz-gathering-at-the-guggenheim-museum/
2. “Alex Katz. This is now.” Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, October 23, 2015. https://www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en/exhibitions/alex-katz-this-is-now
3. Comments from late Colby President William R. Cotter, from Q&A at the opening of the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz, 1996.
4. Alex Katz in response to: “You’ve really given a legacy to Maine. What hopes do you have for the future of this collection?” Q&A at the opening of the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz, 1996.
5. Shantell Martin. “KITES: A Ballet,” 2022. https://shantellmartin.art/work/kites-a-ballet/
6. Shahzia Sikander, in conversation with Sculpture Magazine. 2020.

7. Roberta Smith. “Alex Katz: Six Ramps of a Painter’s Progress.” The New York Times, October 20, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/20/arts/design/alex-katz-guggenheim-museum-painter.html
8. “Black History and Dance in America, a story.” https://aaregistry.org/story/african-american-dance-a-brief-history/
9. “Cumbia: The Musical Backbone of Latin America.” February 18, 2015. https://www.npr.org/sections/altlatino/2013/09/30/227834004/cumbia-the-musical-backbone-of-latin-america
10. From the Colby College Museum of Art’s Mission Statement. https://museum.colby.edu/mission/
11. Lou Stoppard. “Alex Katz: the ‘artist of the immediate’ on why his time is now.” Financial Times, November 2, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/24ec86b8-f38c-4de3-81cb-8ecfc5f8880d#:~:text=Katz%20is%20not%20remotely%20interested%20in%20the%20notion%20of%20the%20artist%20as%20activist