Alex Katz Life and Art Periods

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

ALEX KATZ 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.

ALEX KATZ 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.
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ALEX KATZ 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.

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.

Alex Katz Old Photo

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.

ALEX KATZ 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.

Original content written by The Art Story Contributors
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ALEX KATZ 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."

"Painting does not need you. You have to need painting. Painting has to become you."

"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

Alex Katz Influences

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

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Winter Scene
Winter Scene

Title: Winter Scene (1951-52)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Winter Scene is composed of quick, painterly brushstrokes, and the scene at once echoes Impressionistic plein-air painting as well as Fauve and Abstract Expressionist technique. Size and density of the leafless growth help to distinguish foreground from background, but due to the stark contrast of the strokes against the white canvas, we see here Katz's early preference for a dynamic tension between both depth and surface. The sober, delicate shades of gray characterize many of his earlier paintings, while the insistent, openly luminous off-white demonstrates his penchant for color fields that is seen in his later works. When several of his early works were included in one of his first shows at Roko Gallery, but were overshadowed by the works of the other artist exhibiting in the gallery space, Katz decided that the lack of color in his painting was a mistake and started experimenting with more intense hues.


Oil on composition board - Museum of Modern Art, NY

Four Children
Four Children

Title: Four Children (c. 1951)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Four Children is one of Katz's first forays into figurative painting after viewing work in a similar style by the artists exhibiting in the 10th Street galleries. As in Winter Scene, he shows little concern for detail, focusing instead on color and shape. The distinctly outlined motionless figures are simplified, almost abstract shapes that at once float against and are wedged into the background, foretelling his collages and cutouts. The basic construction of space through diagonal wedges of local and non-local color on the left, and horizontal banding on the right, and distinct colors between their legs, conveys but a shallow sense of space here, which alludes to the Cubist roots from the curriculum at Cooper Union.


Oil on board - Colby College Museum of Art

Ada in the Water
Ada in the Water

Title: Ada in the Water (1958)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Setting himself apart from the avant-garde, Katz started to work in a small format that directly opposed the grand scale of Abstract Expressionism. While he returned to larger dimensions later, Ada in the Water emphasizes simple shape over the painterly mark in a relatively spare economy of means. Instead of using various found materials as was done in much modernist collage, Katz created this work with carefully hand-colored papers that are cut into definite shapes, which foreshadows the juxtaposition of flat color fields in his later works. Here, Ada poses as though in a photographic wide-angle landscape shot, a format which Katz often deployed in his mature phase. Collages such as Ada in the Water led to the series of cutouts begun in 1959, which play with the relationship between figure and background or surrounding space, as is prefigured here.


Collage - Whitney Museum of American Art

The Black Dress
The Black Dress

Title: The Black Dress (1960)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Ada was the cornerstone of Katz's portrait practice, and her features, explored over many years, reveal both cohesion and development across his career; she also became somewhat of an abstract icon in Katz's art. This popular painting shows his wife wearing a classic little black dress and, quite unusually, repeated in a variety of poses. This is Katz's first of many paintings to depict multiple perspectives of a single figure. The composition's multiple views imply her many facets, but also acts as a substitute for three-dimensionality, much as images of dancing Three Graces in classical art. The black dress is depicted flatly, and contributes a characteristic tension between flatness and three-dimensionality. The sequence of poses also calls to mind stop-motion photography, or Cubist and Futurist simultaneous views from multiple perspectives. And yet, Ada does not move. Here, each pose is separate, motionless and fixated upon like an individual portrait painting, or separate paper dolls. Ada poses for her husband, and is also shown to be part of his world: she is outfitted as though for an art opening, and a painting hangs on the wall. Her dress and refined poses are similar to those worn by of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as poet Frank O'Hara must have noticed when he named Ada the "First Lady of the Art World."


Oil on linen - Brandhorst Collection

Frank O'Hara
Frank O'Hara

Title: Frank O'Hara (1959-58)

Artwork Description & Analysis: The "cut-out" is one of Katz's most unique contributions to contemporary art. The idea of isolating the figure came originally from failed paintings, where, dissatisfied with the background, he removed the figure from the composition to place in new ones. This life-sized portrait of the American poet has similarities with early Pop art in its apparent repositioning of something like a painted sign or photographic supermarket display figure into an artistic context. It prefigures the critically acclaimed life-sized cast statues of George Segal (who knew of Katz through the Hansa Gallery) and the hyper-realistic statues of Duane Hanson. These works further explore the dimension of flatness as do his canvases, but ironically within the domain of free-standing sculpture. Taking the painting off of the wall makes the viewer contemplate hir or her situation in the surrounding environment of the work of art. O'Hara was a champion of Katz, who he described as "a cool painter." When installed in museum or gallery, the poet and critic is not simply cut-away from a background, but is rather represented within a familiar artistic territory that repeatedly drew the two friends together. Over the years, Katz continued to explore this hybrid of painting and sculpture, at times displaying groups of figures, cropped or full length, and at times extracting more complex motifs, like a couple canoeing, from his earlier paintings.


Oil on Wood, painted both sides

Red Smile
Red Smile

Title: Red Smile (1963)

Artwork Description & Analysis: 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

Black Brook 11
Black Brook 11

Title: Black Brook 11 (1990)

Artwork Description & Analysis: Katz returned to the Black Brook series throughout the 1980s and 1990s in an effort to reassess landscape painting. Black Brook 11 is a black and white waterscape, composed of textural brushstrokes that recall his early paintings. The gestural technique here fits the subject of a rushing waterfall, which, in nature as in this composition, crescendos at the lightest areas. Without the referential factors of the landscape's local color or background detail, the representation of whitewater appears almost abstract, achieving in this painting as elsewhere in his oeuvre a balance between form and representation. The starkly contrasting tones in the foreground and the subtler ones in the distance reveal Katz's unique ability to depict natural effects of light and shade with a deceptively simplified schematic of brushwork and color.


Oil on canvas - Private collection

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.