Alex Katz: A Painter’s Painter

Alex Katz is one of America’s most celebrated and influential painters, capturing the polished glamor of 20th-century New York with a bold and immediately arresting style.

Nov 30, 2021By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
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Alex Katz photographed by Vivien Bittencourt, 2011, via Galerie Magazine

 

American artist Alex Katz is widely acknowledged as a painter’s painter because his vibrant, spirited art has been influential among many of today’s most successful artists. A large part of this appeal has come from Alex Katz’s refusal to be pigeonholed into any one art historical category, marking him as a maverick leader following his own path. Coming of age in 1950s New York, Katz witnessed the advent of both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, but his own practice occupied a curious position somewhere between these two styles. On the one hand, his art has the slick, polished sheen of Pop Art, documenting people, places, and flowers with a bold, gimmicky language resembling magazine advertisements or billboard posters. Yet Katz has always retained a painterly quality in his work, celebrating the messy and enjoyable business of oil paint, canvas, and brushes – it is this carefully balanced dichotomy that has made him such an extraordinary American artist.

 

Alex Katz: Early Years 

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Blueberry Field by Alex Katz, 1955, via Cleveland Museum of Art

 

Alex Katz was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1927, the son of Russian emigrants with keen interests in poetry and the arts. In 1928, Katz’s family moved to St. Albans in Queens, where Katz attended Woodrow Wilson High School, known for its unique arts program. In 1946, Katz earned a place at the prestigious Cooper Union School of Arts in Manhattan to study painting under the renowned artist Morris Kantor. While a student, Katz made art that was geometric and modernist in style. An outstanding student, Katz was awarded a summer scholarship to the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Here he was taught how to paint directly from life en plein air like the French Impressionists under the tutelage of Henry Varnum Poor. The experience was life-changing, forever altering Katz’s approach to making art. Katz remembered, “You’re working from inside your head, not thinking, just doing it.”

 

The Early Portraits That Made Katz Famous

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Laure and Alain by Alex Katz, 1964, via the Wall Street Journal

 

In the 1950s, Alex Katz settled in New York. He befriended a wide pool of American artists associated with the New York School, including Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers. Katz’s early art of the 1950s was lively, expressive, and colorful, depicting a variety of landscape and figurative subjects painted from life with a fresh spontaneity. In the mid-1950s, Katz developed a series of small collages with strips of delicately colored paper, sometimes featuring people and animals. These studies allowed Katz to explore the visual impact that could be created with flat areas of pure, unmodulated color. In turn, these collages led Katz to begin making intimate, painted portraits of his close friends and social acquaintances set against bold, monochromatic backdrops. These works had a striking, stylized simplicity, conflicting angular, flat areas with slight modulations in tone and shadow. Many of the faces Katz painted were leading figures in the New York art scene, and his self-assured paintings conveying confident, aloof people secured Katz’s place as a leader in a new brand of American portraiture.

 

Katz’s Wife Ada

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The Red Scarf (Ada in Polo Coat) by Alex Katz, 1976, via Sotheby’s

 

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Alex Katz’s wife Ada has been a feature of his art since the late 1950s, appearing in a wide variety of guises. Sometimes she is painted in intimate close-ups that emphasize her large eyes and striking facial structure, other times from afar standing in empty space. Katz also began duplicating his wife’s body into a series of multiples within a single image, thereby transforming her into an abstract motif.

 

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The Black Dress by Alex Katz, 1960, via Phaidon Press

 

In The Black Dress (1960), Ada appears four times, wearing the same black dress, but she is simplified and stylized into a flat, almost abstract logo. Ada was Katz’s muse in one sense, and he has often spoken of his enduring fascination with her classical beauty. But Katz also used Ada’s image as a formalistic painterly device, one that allowed him to experiment with the contrast between the voluminous human body and flat, bold areas of color.

 

The Cut-Outs

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One Flight Up by Alex Katz, 1968, via Dallas News

 

In the late 1950s, Katz made his first painted “cut-out” portrait, cutting out the faces or bodies from his painted canvases and mounting them onto shaped wood backgrounds. This process allowed Katz to create free-standing or wall-mounted portraits that seem to hover in the space around them. Eventually, Katz began painting directly onto pre-cut pieces of wood. In the 1960s Katz shifted to making his cut-out on aluminum sheets, giving them a smoother, more streamlined quality. Katz continues to make these cut-outs of faces and bodies today, sometimes as stand-alone artworks, and other times arranged into complex groupings that resemble the mingling party-goers of his sparkling New York social life.

 

Large-Scale Portraits

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Ted Berrigan by Alex Katz, 1974, via Art Observed

 

The 1960s and 1970s were a monumentally significant period for Alex Katz, when he shifted from small-scale portraits to ambitious, large-format paintings inspired by billboard advertisements and movie screens. He painted faces onto enormous canvases that were cropped and simplified into clean lines and blocky shapes, giving them the cool, detached quality of Pop Art, as seen in his portrait of renowned American poet Ted Berrigan in 1974.

 

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December by Alex Katz, 1974, via Christie’s

 

Katz also began painting large, complex figure groups for the first time in the mid-1960s. He used these group portraits to capture the complex social dynamics of gatherings, particularly those of his intellectual friends in New York City. Prominent American artists, critics, and academics can be recognized in these group portraits, and as such, they act as a fascinating social documentary of New York.

 

American Landscapes

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Maine Woods by Alex Katz, 1996, via Christie’s

 

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Katz focused predominantly on painting landscapes, made with the same graphic, flattened, and stylized quality of his portraits. These were often set in the colorful wilderness of Maine, where Katz and his wife Ada owned a summer house. Katz infused many of his landscapes with softer, painterly elements than his portraits by loosening the edges of his forms. In doing so, he captures the bristling movement of trees, grass, and clouds in the breeze. Many of Katz’s landscapes of this era were made on huge format canvases, an attempt to recreate the all-immersive “environmental” experience of being within the wide-open space of the American landscape.

 

Night Scenes

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Black Brook by Alex Katz, 1988, via Tate Gallery, London

 

In the 1980s and 1990s Katz created a series of night-time landscape paintings, darkened places almost completely devoid of color. These works explore almost monochrome surfaces that are only slightly punctuated with passages of light. They veer close to abstraction, resembling the Color Field paintings of American artists Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. But Katz brings us back into the real world again with hints of realism, such as leaf patterns, rock formations, or ripples of moonlight, as seen in his striking “Black Brook” series made throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

 

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City Night by Alex Katz, 1998, via Tate Gallery, London

 

Following on from his night-time landscapes, Katz created a series of paintings depicting the city at night, conveying the same still, disquieting quality of silence and isolation as the great American painter Edward Hopper. Purple Wind (1995) captures the dwindling light of dusk as color fades into the purplish hues of night, while distant windows are icy sheets of white light. Similarly, City Night (1998) reduces the winter city into an almost entirely grey field of emptiness and melancholia as darkness slowly strips color away. Closer inspection reveals a network of frozen branches that criss-cross over a distant strip-lit office block scattered with tiny dashes of white light.

 

Flowers In Maine

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Roses on Blue by Alex Katz, 2002, via Christie’s

 

Since 2000 Katz has painted large-format flowers with striking, high-keyed colors. Many of these are based on the flowers surrounding his summer house in Maine, where he frequently visits with his wife, Ada. Much like his portraits, Katz explores flowers as a compositional device, sometimes panning out and looking at them as a busy, complex group, as exemplified in Roses on Blue (2002). Other times, Katz zooms in close-up, creating cropped designs resembling Oriental prints or the sensuous flora of Georgia O’Keefe, demonstrated in Pink Roses 1 (2012).

 

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Pink Roses 1 by Alex Katz, 2012, via Christie’s

 

Katz’s most recent paintings of flowers can be compared with the floral motifs in Andy Warhol’s art – both artists explore flowers as a gimmicky, Pop Art motif that is acid-bright, playful, and simplified. Katz has also compared his flower paintings to the buzzing atmosphere of cocktail party scenes, which he has also painted since his early career, describing groups of people and flowers as a series of “overlapping volumes” which interact with one another and create the suggestion of sculptural form, particularly when set against a stark, flattened backdrop.

 

Alex Katz: Late Work

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Park Avenue Departure by Alex Katz, via Kasmin Gallery, New York

 

In recent years, Katz has expanded his oeuvre to include a series of large-scale installations. The striking Metropolitan Faces (2019) was made for the New York subway, a series of hand-painted glass panels featuring Katz’s signature closely cropped scenes and portraits that punctuate the space around them with brilliantly colorful light. In 2019, Katz also created Park Avenue Departure, an installation along New York’s Park Avenue featuring a series of seven identical 8-foot-tall cut-outs of an impeccably stylish woman spread out across the avenue. These works are made from porcelain paint on aluminum, and they demonstrate Katz’s continuing scope and ambition in his 90th year. He says, “I’m alive, and in my studio every day, and people buy my paintings. I just want to keep throwing the dice against the wall.”

 

Alex Katz: The Legacy of an Enduring American Artist

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Craig by Elizabeth Peyton, 1997, via Christie’s

 

Alex Katz has had a phenomenal impact on the development of contemporary painting, influencing a huge range of artists since his mature period in the mid-1960s. This includes the Neo-Expressionist movement in the United States and Germany throughout the 1980s, with artists including George Baselitz and Julian Schnabel emulating Katz’s painterly figuration.

 

More recently, a whole swathe of painters have emulated Katz’s cool, detached, and effortless style. These include American artist Laura Owens, who paints kitsch, acid-bright landscapes, British painter Peter Doig, who makes night-time scenes resembling movie-stills, and American artist Elizabeth Peyton, with her whimsical portraits of friends and celebrities. All these artists (and many more) share the same pared-back simplicity and breezy nonchalance that has made Katz so famous today.



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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.