Published: November 27, 2001
By Stephen May
NEW YORK CITY – Alex Katz, one of the most innovative and versatile leaders of the return to figurative realism among late Twentieth Century American artists, has attracted an enormous following among critics and the general public. A perennial maverick who never wanted to be part of any art movement, he has developed a sort of stylized, reductive realism that has made him a major figure in the American art world.
Katz is best known for striking, direct, large-scale paintings – portraits, figures and landscapes – that have become virtual icons of recent US art. His work is innovative while retaining links to historical painting. Throughout his career, Katz has explored the techniques, creative strategies and manner of execution of a variety of artists.
His practices have been compared by art historians to painters ranging from Renaissance masters to Modernist titans. It is clear that his output has mirrored facets of American art over the four decades of his distinguished career: he has exploited the exaggerated scale of the Abstract Expressionists, employed vivid color and brilliant light like Color Field painters, and utilized everyday themes that are hallmarks of Pop Art. Synthesizing these elements into his own signature style has made Katz famous as he carved out a distinctive niche in the art world.
This highly appealing and diverse exhibition showcases a lesser-known aspect of Katz’s art – the smaller paintings that early in his career constituted free-standing works and more recently have become integral elements in the process by which he creates his monumental canvases. The reveal an artist whose commitment to economical detail lends itself to interesting, intimate works of art.
It all adds up to a grand and rewarding show. Whether large or small, Alex Katz’s art is unmistakable and endearing.
“Alex Katz: ,” the first American museum exhibition devoted entirely to the artist’s smaller works, features 79 paintings dating from the mid-1950s to the present. It was co-organized by a team led by Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., where the show opened in April. Other organizers were Dana Self, curator at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo., where the exhibition will be seen March 22 to June 2, 2002, and Shamin M. Momin, branch curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris in New York City, where part of the exhibit is currently on view.
The Manhattan display is divided between two Whitney locations: the main museum itself, through December 2 (works created in the last 20 years), and the Philip Morris branch, through January 4, 2002 (works from the 1950s to 1980). The exhibition is accompanied by a handsome, useful catalogue.
Katz was born in Brooklyn in 1927, the son of bohemian parents who had emigrated from Russia. They painted the rooms of their Sheepshead Bay home in intense colors and unusual patterns that young Alex found “bizarre.” He recalls trying to paint the walls of his bedroom in more sedate, “ordinary” colors.
This uncomfortable, early exposure to unusual hues and designs, along with the influence of Abstract Expressionism – the ruling style when he came of age as an artist in New York – may have contributed to Katz’s liberal use of expanses of saturated color in his trademark work.
He studied commercial art at first at Cooper Union Art School, from 1946 to 1949, years that he regards as crucial to his development as a painter. “I had a great time and got a grand education,” says Katz. “It was the best time of my life. I started painting there, and it made me feel like a normal person, not so strange.”
During two summers of study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, Katz took up painting outdoors, rather than working in a studio. “It was the first time I had done direct painting and it was a real kick. It was a blast…My talents and instincts were all towards this explosive, fast, painting,” he recalls. His landscapes from this period, spontaneous pictures filled with atmospheric light, reflect his joy in painting in plein air from nature.
Today, Katz lives and works most of the year in Manhattan, with summers in Lincolnville, in midcoast Maine. His work bears the imprint of each of these very different locales.
In the 1950s, as he launched his career, Katz concentrated on , many of which show the influence of his friends and fellow artists Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers. The broadly brushed, loosely depicted figures in Katz’s “Street Scenes – Balloons” (1951-52) and the semi-abstract sweep of landscape in “Late Spring” (1954) are reminiscent of Porter’s harmonious canvases and Rivers’s brushy paintings.
The simplified colors and elements in “White Pine in Field” (1954) and the study for “Walk” (1970) especially put one in mind of Porter’s work, as well as the spare images of Milton Avery. Queried recently about influences on his work, Katz cited Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollock as “major painters” in his art.
The evolution of Katz’s characteristic style, marked by realism and initially intimate size, was partly a reaction to the mannered, gestural approach and grandiose canvases by the Abstract Expressionists, whose work was all the rage in the Big Apple. In the 1950s, Katz experimented in interesting ways with collages and cut-outs. In 1960 he began creating theater sets for the Paul Taylor dance group. These efforts perpetuated his career-long exploration of scale in art.
Since the late 1950s, portraits have been the mainstay of Katz’s painting – both single-subject and figurative groups, often posed against neutral backgrounds. His straightforward, generalized “Self-Portrait (Cigarette)” (1957), measuring 36 by 24 inches, epitomized this new phase in his work. “[G]one,” says curator Weinberg, “is any suggestion of all-over cubist structure and conventionalized, abstract form. This portrait seems to provide the bare and simple facts with a touch of purposely awkward, rumpled elegance befitting the bohemian 1950s.”
Favorite portrait subjects include his wife Ada, son Vincent and artists, critics, dancers and writers from Katz’s circle of friends. “Oval Ada” (1958) offers a particularly intimate, simplified likeness of his young wife. “Joan” (1985) is an evocative view of an even more vulnerable young woman.
Katz’s art continued to evolve in the 1960s, with his work characterized by simplified images, close compositional cropping, symmetrical order, a kind of freeze-frame monumentality and rich, brilliant color.
Around 1962, when he decided that he had to enlarge his works in order to compete with other contemporary artists, Katz’s assumed a different role in his painting process. As co-curator Momin observes in her catalogue essay, “though he considers them  works in and of themselves, they also became part of the creative process – oil sketches often executed on-site, intended to capture the immediacy of the image, and to explore the different approaches to scale and arrangement he could take with the particular subject matter.”
Katz usually creates one or more oil sketches for each large painting. In these small works, mostly painted from life, the artist captures the essence of his subject, including pose, gesture, lighting and detail. These oil sketches retain something of the painterly intimacy of his 1950s efforts, while also suggesting the ironic quality and grand sense of scale of the larger canvases.
Making changes as he goes along, Katz follows the initial oil sketches with more detailed drawings and then enlarged cartoons that are finally transferred into much larger compositions on canvas. Throughout the process, Momin notes, there is “tension between control and improvisation.”
In developing his approach to larger-scale works Katz was influenced by everyday commercial media, especially billboard advertising. For example, in the study for “Paul Taylor” (1964), the dance impresario’s face appears in the left side of the cropped composition. “Ted Berrigan” (1967) zooms in on the face of the bespectacled subject “Green Shoes” (1987) offers an intriguing composition in which the largely unseen woman’s body is divided, with only her extended legs and feet showing. It is an approach common in commercial advertising.
Momin sees in the elongated horizontal format of “Fidel and Yvonne” (1991) “the influence of cinema techniques…[it is] reminiscent of a wide-screen movie.”
Among the more memorable likenesses on view is “Green Cap” (1984), a small, stylized, flattened, simplified canvas. Although it measures only 12 3/16 by 17 13/16 inches, its close-up perspective gives it an air of monumentality.
Katz’s most frequent sitter, in paintings of all sizes, has been his wife Ada, whom he has depicted for over four decades. “Ada,” the artist said in a recent interview, “is the perfect model, an American beauty. She’s also like a classic European… She’s like a dancer. Dancers know exactly what they’re doing. What I do is cast her in different roles.”
As his striking portraits of 1990 (“Ada”) and 1996 (“Black Scarf”) and a sighting in Maine this summer confirm, Ada Katz remains a handsome subject for her husband’s brush.
While Katz has focuses primarily on figurative work for most of his career, he has made forays into landscape painting. Indeed, as this exhibition documents, since 1990 landscapes have figured as prominently as portraits in his oeuvre. The recent landscapes tend to feature dramatic, tightly framed, semi-abstract urban and rural views.
“New Year’s Eve” (1990) evokes the feel of a big city on a murky winter evening. A series of four “West” paintings of 1998, each a modest 10 by 20 inches in size, offers nearly minimalist cityscapes of high-rise apartment buildings. These black and white oil sketches preceded 10 by 24 foot nocturnal paintings.
“Yellow Road” (1998), a spontaneous, vigorously brushed, sylvan landscape, has the feel of a Fairfield Porter canvas. An intimate (15 by 12-inch) study of a brightly hued entry into some woods, it is deftly composed and painted.
Among the most recent works in the show are a number of rather somber figure studies, completed in 2000, and “Beach Hat” (2000) an intriguing glimpse of a woman under a broad-brimmed chapeau.
These latest paintings demonstrate that the lean and wiry artist is still going strong in his 70s, and suggests that we can expect lots of interesting and appealing Katz art in the days ahead.
Nowadays, Katz is represented in museums all over the country, with especially strong holdings at the Whitney and at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Me. A new (1996) wing at the latter museum, which is dedicated to Katz’s work and which he helped design, provides capacious galleries with spectacular spaces in which to display some of his largest and most entertaining works. Katz has donated over 400 of his works to the college, which gave him an honorary degree in 1984.
It is fitting that “Alex Katz: ” is concluding its tour at the Whitney Museum and its Philip Morris branch. The museum, a leading advocate of Twentieth Century and contemporary American art, has had a long association with the painter.
Since 1960 the Whitney has shown his work in numerous group exhibitions, as well as organizing a 1974 traveling show of his prints, and presenting a major 1986 retrospective. The Whitney was the first museum to acquire a Katz painting – “Eli” (1963) – in 1964, and has since added some 60 works, spanning the artist’s entire career.
This fascinating and rewarding exhibition, which will be greatly enjoyed by Katz’s legion of admirers, showcases the astutely organized dialogue between abstraction and representation he has achieved in landscapes, portraits and figurative groups. It is a welcome, striking display of the oeuvre of one of our most beloved and admired contemporary painters.
The exhibition catalogue was underwritten by the Crosby Kemper Foundation and published by the Kemper Museum. The 87-page volume contains an introduction by French author Eric de Chassey and helpful essays by organizers Weinberg, Self and Momin.
Each work in the show is illustrated in color, with a selection singled out for large, extraordinarily up-close plates that are particularly interesting. The catalogue is nicely done and will be coveted by Katz aficionados.
The Whitney Museum of American Art is at 945 Madison Avenue (at 75th Street). For information, 212-570-3676. The Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris is at 120 Park Avenue (at 42nd Street). For information, 917-663-2453. The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is at 4420 Warwick Boulevard, Kansas City, Mo. For information, 816-753-5784.
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