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Ada et al.:A half-century of Alex Katz

The clamor for all things Katz stems from the Brooklyn-born artist’s desire to break from the mold, even early on. “People were following me even in art school,” he says, for the simple reason that he “wanted to make something new, not an academic painting.”

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Katz attended Cooper Union in New York and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in the late 1940s. While he was a student, his paintings began feeding an avant-garde fervor even among the more conservative in the academic community. “The teacher asked me, ‘Why are you using all these bright colors?’” he remembers. “And then, when he had a show, he used bright colors.”

Katz’s approach to portraiture—even his concentration on the portrait genre—has had a profound effect on current artistic practice. “In 1957 it was heresy to do a portrait. To make one now, well, everyone’s doing it,” he explains. “I was a leader in areas not explored well. I drew large heads in the sixties and this opened up a lot of space for people to draw large heads. I led in large cutouts. I went into areas where you put real energy in the paintings and went into large paintings and large people and then went into large landscapes in the eighties, and no one had been in those areas. It opened up a lot of space for other people.”

Since his first solo exhibition in 1954 (at the artist-run Roko Gallery), Katz has had nearly 200 solo shows around the world. His most recent exhibition, the highly praised survey Alex Katz Paints Ada, concentrating entirely on his many portrayals of his wife, was mounted at New York’s Jewish Museum this past winter.

Secrets of Success

Katz relates the passion for his paintings to overarching social and even psychological issues. “We had fixed values,” he explains, “and now we deal in a world where nothing’s really fixed. Fixed values were like things of absolutes, like in communism, fascism or born-agains. My paintings are not of fixed values, and people are looking for something that is not fixed—painters, particularly. 

But despite his fixation on fixation, Katz’s introspective theory allows for elements of change.“The world changes and my paintings keep changing a great deal, too,” he continues.“The wars never affected my paintings. During the fifties, I was in a fugitive, bohemian world. And then in the sixties I went more into the real world and the more popular world. You can see the change in my paintings.”

In a way, Katz’s art takes us down an almost escapist path. “They’re almost like a Fellini movie, a dream that isn’t true,” he says of his serenely composed works. “You know, happy endings—like in Hollywood films. It’s about beauty, and beauty is an elusive factor. People like to have art escape from reality and their problems.” Katz doesn’t get bogged down in the cruel, frustrating, unjust circumstances of the real world. He’d much rather smell the roses—and have his work emit its own enticing, emotion-stirring scent.

New Life

Today, Katz’s world is leading him. “My work and I keep changing. I know what I want to do but I’m not totally conscious of what I am doing,” he reveals. “You paint a picture and you have an idea of what you want to say but you don’t know if you’re saying that or saying something else. People have to tell you. I thought I was a very wild painter, and when I had my first show in 1954, an art critic said my paintings had an oriental calm! You don’t make paintings in isolation, you make them for audiences and the audience sort of tells you where you are.”

But Katz remains human and, above all, an artist. On receiving poor reviews,“I get angry and hostile,” he admits.“My reaction is,‘If you don’t like this, I’ll make something much rougher for you not to like.’”

New Technique

Still striving to break new ground, Katz is excited about the new painting technique he has embarked upon. He makes clear that it is definitely a new direction for him. “My first paintings were very direct; I tried to make things look lively,” he says.“These [new] paintings are painted in steps. I mix the colors and lay out the brushes, which takes almost as much time as it takes to make the painting. They’re very large so I don’t paint them directly. I make a smaller painting first. Then I make studies and drawings and blow them up like Old Masters did. Using the information of all of those, I paint the final all at once.The paintings are richer and more complicated,”

Could Katz himself, then, be a sort of new Old Master? Parisian painter Michelle Marie explains that “Katz cannot be categorically defined. His work remains independent of classification while incorporating elements of German Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop Culture. However, in the end, his images are strictly his.”

Rober t Manley, Senior Vice President and Head of Evening Sales, Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s, admires Katz for similar reasons. “Katz is an important artist who has brought about a renaissance and interest in the appreciation of figurative art,” he comments.“He is an inspiration to a younger generation of figurative painters. More importantly, he has stayed true to his vision, retaining his style of provocative, beautiful figurative painting, through all the whims and fashions of the art world.”

New Subject Matter

And Katz is honing in on new frontiers. “I’m doing some seascapes,” he reveals.“I just flipped into it this summer. Of course, I’m also doing portraits and landscapes, but the sea things are new—scenes with boats. I just finished a seascape in two greys with black boats, utilizing the color palette of my work in 1958-59. Originally the seascape had people in it, but I took them out because I felt it made the painting more interesting. I also did some in bright blue.”

These new marine canvases are currently scheduled for show “in a year or two at PaceWildenstein Gallery.” In the meantime, the works of this New Master continue to receive pride of place in museums and galleries on several continents, to command imposing sums in the auction houses, and to hang—as originals, as prints, or even as posters—on the walls of young and old, art aficionado and casual viewer alike. In their clarity, simplicity and monumental pleasantness, Alex Katz’s pictures have struck a universal nerve.

Pictured: Alex Katz, 2002. Photo by Vivien Bittencourt/Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.