Alex Katz was born in Brooklyn in 1927 and spent his childhood in the city’s suburbs. His interest in art and poetry, encouraged by his parents since an early age, led him to enroll at the Cooper Union School in Manhattan. There, he received a rigorous training in the fine and applied arts. During those years, he rode the train quite a bit to make it to school and he made the most of his train rides by sketching the population of the train, but also sketching the view of parks and restaurants all around him. He called this series, which was all kept in his notebook, the “composition of people.”
From sketching people in the train to painting en plein air, Alex’s sense of light would become one of his most iconic traits. Despite the popularity of the Abstract Expressionist movement, Katz developed his own style, pursuing figurative painting and finally embracing portraiture as his primary focus, from the second half of the 1950s on. Placing him in an artistic niche, Alex kept painting his immediate social circle in downtown Manhattan, where he had moved from the suburbs. His aim was to present the people around him, his friends and loved ones. This included his future wife Ada, who he met in 1957, and who would become one of his favorite subjects. In his painting, they often appeared suspended in a monochrome space (fig. 1).
Fig. 1 - Irving and Lucy, 1958, Oil on linen, private collection
Alex began to be influenced more and more by movies and billboards. In time, his subjects became larger than life, in scale, and his attention started to focus on expressions and gestures more than ever. When he depicted a group of friends at a social gathering, there was a sense of stillness, almost isolation, that came from everyone within the group, as if Katz were more interested in capturing the image as a frozen instant, rather than presenting an event in a longer narrative (fig. 2 and 3).
Fig. 2 - The Red Smile, 1963, Oil on linen, Whitney Museum of American Art
Fig. 3 - The Cocktail Party, 1965, Oil on linen, private collection
By developing his very own personal style, Katz was never part of an established artistic movement, and his work has come in and out of critical favor over the decades. His portraits finally gained the public recognition they deserved in the mid-80s. At this point though, Alex decided to experiment some more, switching to the representation of natural and city landscapes, with no figures in them.
By refocusing his attention on this new subject, he circled back to the study of light, which became the true main subject in this new series, to which he dedicated the next two decades of his life. As he did with his portraits, Alex was, once again, interested in depicting his landscapes as they appear.
«When you first see something, it’s like a blast, and things don’t focus. You want to get that initial blast, that’s what it’s about. There is no realistic painting, to me, that can so the whole thing; if you get the light, you can’t get all the details, if you get the details, you don’t get the light. Realism is variable. »
Gold and Black 2, 1993, Oil on linen, Peter Glum Gallery, New York
Cornice, 1997, Oil on linen, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
By looking at the artist’s turnover in the past two decades, one can see how Katz’s work is starting to get more and more attention in the past few years. His style was already ahead of his time, but it is catching up now.
Now that Alex Katz is 95 years old, the Solomon R. Guggenheim of New York is honoring his life-long work with an incredible retrospective which Frank Lloyd’s architectural gem seems to have been tailor made for. If you are in New York anytime between now and February 20th, 2023, do yourself a favor and visit the solo exhibition entitled Alex Katz: Gathering, you won’t regret it!
All pictures taken by Bianca Mafodda