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Alex Katz

American Draftsman and Painter

Movement: Pop Art

Born: July 24, 1927 - Brooklyn, New York

Alex Katz Timeline

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
"Part of what I'm about is seeing how I can paint the same thing differently instead of the different things the same way."
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"An older painter gave me some advice: 'Figuration is obsolete and color is French.'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
"Painting seems an old man's business. After a certain time you're out of it, and you just paint masterpieces."
Alex Katz

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

Alex Katz Signature

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

Alex Katz Famous 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.
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Alex Katz Artworks in Focus:

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."

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.

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Alex Katz Biography Continues
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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View Influences Chart

Artists

Georges BraqueGeorges Braque
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
Jackson PollockJackson Pollock
Barnett NewmanBarnett Newman

Friends

Edwin DenbyEdwin Denby
Fairfield PorterFairfield Porter
Larry RiversLarry Rivers

Movements

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

Artists

Peter DoigPeter Doig
Richard PrinceRichard Prince
Julian SchnabelJulian Schnabel

Friends

Chuck CloseChuck Close
Lucy LippardLucy Lippard

Movements

PhotorealismPhotorealism
Pop ArtPop Art

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Useful Resources on Alex Katz

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of 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 Recomended resource

By Vincent Katz, Alex Katz, Sharon Corwin

paintings

Alex Katz Recomended resource

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

More Interesting Books about 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 Recomended resource

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

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