American Draftsman and Painter
Brooklyn, New York
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.
- 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 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.
Important Art by Alex Katz
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.
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.
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.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Alex Katz
- Invented Symbols: An Art AutobiographyOur PickBy Vincent Katz, Alex Katz, Sharon Corwin
- Alex KatzOur PickBy Carter Ratcliffe, Robert Storr, and Iwona Blazwick
- Alex Katz: An American Way of SeeingBy Eric de Chassey, Roland Monig, Guy Tosatto, Alex Katz
- Alex Katz in MaineBy Sanford Schwartz, Alex Katz
- Alex Katz Paints AdaBy Robert Storr, Lawrence Alloway, James Schuyler
- Alex Katz: New YorkBy Enrique Juncosa, Juan Bonet, Alex Katz, Rachel Thomas
- When Gavin Brown Met Alex KatzBy Sarah Douglas / The New York Observer / September 13, 2011
- The Art of Alex KatzBy Martin Gayford / The Telegraph / May 10, 2010
- Alex Katz is Cooler Than EverOur PickBy Cathleen McGuigan / Smithsonian Magazine / August 2009
- Alex Katz and the Art That Conceals Its ArtBy John Russell / The New York Times / March 14, 2006