Alex Katz - Biography and Legacy
American Draftsman and Painter
Brooklyn, New York
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of Alex Katz
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 20th-century art.