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Artists Alex Katz

Alex Katz

American Draftsman and Painter

Movement: Pop Art

Born: July 24, 1927 - Brooklyn, New York

Quotes

"When you're working with the tradition of art, you're usually painting like the paintings you've seen; your vision is other people's vision. You see things through the culture in which you live, and the culture in which you live is always past tense. Some people are always seeing things in another time period. To see things in the present time period, you have to break through, and that's what I've been trying to do."
Alex Katz
"Painting does not need you. You have to need painting. Painting has to become you."
Alex Katz
"An older painter gave me some advice: "Figuration is obsolete and color is French." I said to myself, "To you, baby." Actually, I had no idea whether what I was doing was going to find an audience, but my instincts told me there was no other way for me."
Alex Katz

"I can't think of anything more exciting than the surface of things. Just appearance."

Synopsis

Alex Katz is a New York based painter and printmaker, specializing in boldly simplified portraits and landscapes. Though influenced by American Scene artists as well as diverse elements of European and American modernism, he has avoided affiliation with any group or movement. To a great degree, Katz's distinction lies in the fascinating dialogue he developed between realism and more abstract tendencies in modernism. His heroically scaled landscapes and figural compositions recall Monet's late Water Lilies, Abstract Expressionist compositions, and roadside billboards. Rendered in bold and flat colors with sparing detail, his canvases create a double affirmation of the motif and the painted surface. His technique owes much to the crisp manner of commercial art and illustration, and this feature, along with his uncomplicated display of contemporary subjects, dovetails into Pop art. Much in the way Andy Warhol turned a Campbell's soup can into an instantly recognizable symbol, Katz transformed his circle of family and friends into visually arresting icons. His repeated return to subjects for which he has a fondness, such as his wife, pool-side bathers, and the quiet Maine landscape, encourages reception of his work as a blithesome celebration of the everyday in middle-class America.

Key Ideas

Katz claimed his art to be about "surface," which can be understood both in terms of his penchant for flat fields of color and clean lines, and also in the fact that his imagery is not particularly psychologically complex.
Katz's works bridge the gap between traditions of abstraction and figuration. For instance, his choice of monumental scale intensifies the lines, contours, colors, shapes, and his technique, such that those formal elements balance the figurative subject matter.

Most Important Art

Red Smile (1963)
This work exemplifies Katz's highly polished, mature technique where there is little trace of the work's making. In the 1960's, Katz began to produce paintings inspired by the aesthetics of commercial advertising, film, and television, demonstrating his work's parallel with the burgeoning Pop art movement. Red Smile is nearly ten feet wide, and is one of his largest portraits to date. The composition resembles a billboard or a cinematic close-up in a widescreen view. The cropped view of Ada on the right side with her pale skin, clothing, and linear detailing of face, shirt, and hair, is balanced by the bold expanse of flat red to the left. The red ground seems to caress the contour of her face, and this feature, along with gleaming smile, expresses the warmth and contentment for which Katz's art is so often celebrated.
Oil on canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art
More Art Works


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Biography

Childhood

Alex Katz was born in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn in 1927, and grew up in St. Albans, Queens. He began drawing at an early age with his father, a businessman, and knew that he wanted to study art exclusively by the time he attended Woodrow Wilson High School, which provided a program that allowed him to split the day between academics and the arts.

Although his mother, a former actress, feared that a career in art would lead to a hard life for her son, Alex's family encouraged his aspirations. His father also had an interest in fine art and architecture. Many of their friends were painters, and they maintained a collection of Russian abstract paintings.

During his high school years, Katz studied advertising design, but found more enjoyment in making drawings of antique casts. He visited The Museum of Modern Art for the first time and remembered seeing paintings by Piet Mondrian: "I liked Broadway Boogie Woogie very much. I thought it was absurd when I first saw it because it was like jazz to me."

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Early Training

In 1945, Katz was drafted into the armed forces and served in the navy for a year. Seeking to continue his studies in art after his return to New York, he took the entrance test for Cooper Union without expectations and surprised himself when he gained admission to the school. He initially struggled with the curriculum, comparing his own progress with other students that had graduated from art preparatory programs, but grew more confident while studying with teachers such as Morris Kantor, Paul Zucker, and Robert Gwathmey. His burgeoning interest in art history and painting soon drew him away from his intended focus on commercial art and illustration. His early drawings of the late 1940's are consistent with his later works as they demonstrate a penchant for strongly contoured form and simplified compositions.

Alex Katz Old Photo

In 1949, Katz received a scholarship for summer study at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine, where he learned about plein air painting with Henry Varnum Poor. Painting outdoors taught Katz how to paint from life and to work spontaneously, which lent freedom and immediacy to his brushwork, similar to the qualities that he admired in compositions by Jackson Pollock. His early paintings depict trees against a light-filled background, emphasizing energy and sensation rather than an exact rendering of the landscape. These works were exhibited at his first solo exhibition at Roko Gallery in 1954, and also in a joint exhibition with Lois Dodd at Tanager Gallery on 10th Street.

Through these exhibitions Katz was introduced into the 10th Street scene, and exposed to the work of Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher, and Larry Rivers. Impressed by their "open" figurative style, Katz began to paint in a similar manner. One of his first figurative paintings, Four Children (1951), was based upon a photograph but shows little concern for realistic depiction. Working on the photograph paintings prompted Katz to consider the development of a modern approach to figurative painting, which was then considered old-fashioned. Hoping to find a balance between the traditional and contemporary, Katz decided to concentrate on portraiture and built upon his painting style by combining traditional techniques, his modernist training, and the experiences with direct painting in Skowhegan.

Mature Period

In 1957, Katz met Ada del Moro at a gallery opening. They married in the next year, and Ada became the most frequent subject of his paintings. By this time, Katz had settled into a mature style, painting his portraits thinly and deliberately in direct opposition to the gestural approach of action painting. Painting both in New York and Maine, his subjects range from portraits, to summery leisure scenes, to simplified landscape motifs, and typically exhibit flatness due to color-blocking and occasional visible contour lines. The collages, begun in 1955, further emphasized the distance between his own style and Abstract Expressionism by using an unexpectedly small format and carefully trimmed shapes, as in Ada in the Water (1958). Noting a disconnect in the subject-ground relationship, Katz began using cutouts to arrange figures on pieces of wood in 1959, a concept developed into a series of flat "sculptures," or freestanding portraits in real space.

Media and commercial culture played an important role in Katz's work of the 1960s, which drew from film, television, and billboard advertising. Red Smile (1963) is similar to a close-up film shot of Ada. His dramatic flair was put to good use in costume and set designs for the choreographer Paul Taylor beginning in the early 1960s, which culminated in a lifelong interest in music and dance. Katz also started making group portraits, which continued to dominate his body of work throughout the 1970s. Using the people around him as models, these paintings resulted in a fascinating social history of his aging circle of artists, poets, writers, and critics.

Late Years

Alex Katz Portrait

In the 1980's, Katz continued his concentration on portraiture and took his landscape in a new, larger direction, exemplified by the Black Brook paintings, which he described as "environmental." The brook, a theme that Katz returned to frequently throughout the 1980s, is depicted as a nocturnal landscape. Virtually devoid of color, these pieces border upon the abstract, using heavy, brushy strokes of paint within his familiar color-blocked areas. Attracted to the possibilities of the contrast between light and dark, he also embarked on a series of urban nighttime paintings that create an atmosphere similar to Edward Hopper's isolated cityscapes. Katz's achievement was recognized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which mounted his first major retrospective in 1986. In spite of this success, Katz made an effort to keep challenging himself artistically through the exploration of different subjects, colors, textures, and light effects.

Katz continues to maintain a home studio in SoHo, New York, in the same artists' cooperative building where he has lived and worked since 1968.

Legacy

Today, Katz' art stands as a representative of a happy embrace of realism in the face of movements that questioned the fundamentals of realism. The art world of the 1990's and beyond was no longer committed to the rules and expectations of modernist legacy, and this allowed for more interest in his art. Katz's emphasis on the iconic - or even deadpan - over the expressive, and his foregrounding the "surface of things" has been a draw for younger artists. Elizabeth Peyton, who makes painterly portraits of celebrity icons in an up-close and cropped manner, has taken a cue from Katz. And "pictures generation" artist, Richard Prince has taken interest in the commercial style and meaningfully ambiguous quality of Katz's figural art. Once derided by modernist critic Clement Greenberg, today several high-profile writers and collectors (e.g.: Carter Ratcliffe, Robert Storr and Charles Saatchi) actively promote Katz's art, and with this push his influence grows. Katz is admired today for sustaining a distinctively "cool" aura, which is apparent in the uncomplicated well-being manifested by his figures, as well as by the artist in his stalwart individuality and distinction from the movements that dominated later twentieth century art.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Alex Katz
Interactive chart with Alex Katz's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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Artists

Georges Braque
Henri Matisse
Jackson Pollock
Barnett Newman

Friends

Edwin Denby
Fairfield Porter
Larry Rivers

Movements

Abstract Expressionism
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Pop Art
Alex Katz
Alex Katz
Years Worked: 1950 - present

Artists

Peter Doig
Richard Prince
Julian Schnabel

Friends

Chuck Close
Lucy Lippard

Movements

Photorealism
Pop Art

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on Alex Katz

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
More
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Invented Symbols: An Art Autobiography

By Vincent Katz, Alex Katz, Sharon Corwin

paintings
Alex Katz

By Carter Ratcliffe, Robert Storr, and Iwona Blazwick

Alex Katz: An American Way of Seeing

By Eric de Chassey, Roland Monig, Guy Tosatto, Alex Katz

When Gavin Brown Met Alex Katz

By Sarah Douglas
The New York Observer
September 13, 2011

The Art of Alex Katz

By Martin Gayford
The Telegraph
May 10, 2010

Alex Katz is Cooler Than Ever

By Cathleen McGuigan
Smithsonian Magazine
August 2009

Alex Katz and the Art That Conceals Its Art

By John Russell
The New York Times
March 14, 2006

Claude Monet
Claude Monet
Claude Monet
Claude Monet was a French artist who helped pioneer the painterly effects and emphasis on light, atmosphere, and plein air technique that became hallmarks of Impressionism. He is especially known for his series of haystacks and cathedrals at different times of day, and for his late Waterlilies.
ArtStory: Claude Monet
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
ArtStory: Abstract Expressionism
Pop Art
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
ArtStory: Pop Art
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol was an American Pop artist best known for his prints and paintings of consumer goods, celebrities, and photographed disasters. One of the most famous and influential artists of the 1960s, he pioneered compositions and techniques that emphasized repetition and the mechanization of art.
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Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian
Piet Mondrian, a founding member of the De Stijl movement, was a modern Dutch artist who used grids, perpendicular lines, and the three primary colors in what he deemed Neo-plasticism.
ArtStory: Piet Mondrian
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock was the most well-known Abstract Expressionist and the key example of Action Painting. His work ranges from Jungian scenes of primitive rites to the purely abstract "drip paintings" of his later career.
ArtStory: Jackson Pollock
Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers
Larry Rivers was an American artist whose work combines the brushy texture of Abstract Expressionism with figurative elements and a Pop art style. He was an earlier practitioner of appropriation techniques, and his paintings sample from art history, commercial products, celebrity imagery, and other styles and sources.
Larry Rivers
Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper
Edward Hopper was an American painter and printmaker during the early-mid twentieth century, and was best known for his realist depictions of urban cityscapes, rendered with a signature solemnity. Although a realist, Hopper believed his art lacked the sentimentality or glamorization often found in realist art.
Edward Hopper
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
ArtStory: Clement Greenberg
Georges Braque
Georges Braque
Georges Braque
Georges Braque was a modern French painter who, along with Pablo Picasso, developed analytic Cubism and Cubist collage in the early twentieth century.
ArtStory: Georges Braque
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse was a French painter and sculptor who helped forge modern art. From his early Fauvist works to his late cutouts, he emphasized expansive fields of color, the expressive potential of gesture, and the sensuality inherent in art-making.
ArtStory: Henri Matisse
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman was an Abstract Expressonist painter in New York who painted large-scale fields of solid color, interrupted by vertical lines or "zips." His sometimes narrow or boxy canvases, part painting and part sculpture, were influential for Minimalism.
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Edwin Denby
Edwin Denby
Edwin Denby
Edwin Denby was an American dance critic and poet during the heyday of the New York School. Starting in 1943 Denby was chief dance critic for the New York Herald Tribune. He was also a long-time friend to Willem and Elaine de Kooning and photographer Rudy Burkhardt
Edwin Denby
Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter
Fairfield Porter was a twentieth-century American realist painter and noted art critic. Although friends with and staunch admirer of many abstractionists from The New York School, Porter was something of a black sheep, opting to paint figurative forms and landscapes, which are only now gaining significant recognition.
ArtStory: Fairfield Porter
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-Painterly Abstraction
Post-painterly abstraction was a term developed by critic Clement Greenberg in 1964 to describe a diverse range of abstract painters who rejected the gestural styles of the Abstract Expressionists and favored instead what he called "openness or clarity." Painters as different as Ellsworth Kelly and Helen Frankenthaler were described by the term. Some employed geometric form, others veils of stained color.
ArtStory: Post-Painterly Abstraction
Peter Doig
Peter Doig
Peter Doig
Peter Doig is a Scottish painter, best known for his abstracted landscapes that depict snowy outdoor scenes inspired by his childhood growing up in Canada. Doig derives much of his inspiration from found photographs.
Peter Doig
Richard Prince
Richard Prince
Richard Prince
Richard Prince is an American painter and photographer. Prince began creating collages containing photographs in 1975. Prince's series known as the Cowboys, produced from 1980 to 1992, and ongoing, is his most famous group of rephotographs - a medium that uses appropriation as its own focus.
Richard Prince
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel is an American painter, interior decorator and filmmaker. In addition to being a major figure in the Neo-Expressionist movement, he is most well-known as the director of such films as Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
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Chuck Close
Chuck Close
Chuck Close
Chuck Close is an American painter and photographer who achieved fame as a photorealist through his large-scale portraits. Though a catastrophic spinal artery collapse in 1988 left him severely paralyzed, he has continued to paint and produce work that remains sought after by museums and collectors.
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Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard
Lucy Lippard is an American art scholar and curator who has focused on postmodern movements such as conceptual art, feminist theory, and land art.
Lucy Lippard
Photorealism
Photorealism
Photorealism
Photorealism is a style of painting that was developed by such artists as Chuck Close, Audrey Flack and Richard Estes. Photorealists often utilize painting techniques to mimic the effects of photography and thus blur the line that have typically divided the two mediums.
ArtStory: Photorealism