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Alex Katz Photo

Alex Katz

American Draftsman and Painter

Born: July 24, 1927 - Brooklyn, New York
"I can't think of anything more exciting than the surface of things. Just appearance."
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Alex Katz Signature
"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."
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Alex Katz Signature
"Part of what I'm about is seeing how I can paint the same thing differently instead of the different things the same way."
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Alex Katz Signature
"Painting does not need you. You have to need painting. Painting has to become you."
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Alex Katz Signature
"An older painter gave me some advice: 'Figuration is obsolete and color is French.'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."
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Alex Katz Signature
"Painting seems an old man's business. After a certain time you're out of it, and you just paint masterpieces."
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Alex Katz Signature

Summary of Alex Katz

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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.

Biography of Alex Katz

Alex Katz Photo

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.



Progression of Art

1951-52

Winter Scene

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

c. 1951

Four Children

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

1958

Ada in the Water

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

1960

The Black Dress

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

1959-58

Frank O'Hara

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

1963

Red Smile

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

1990

Black Brook 11

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


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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Alex Katz Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 15 Oct 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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