I always felt I could do whatever I wanted as long as it related to live art and live art issues.
U nder the shadow of the Depression during the late 1920s in America and up to the traumatic aftermath of World War II and beyond, many other American artists answered a call to engage actively in the blossoming Abstract Expressionism movement. Katz responded differently, developing his unparalleled style as early as the 1950s that anticipated the emergence of Pop Art. Following his previous shows in Shanghai in 2011 and 2016, Katz’s artistic creations are expanding to reach a broader base of audience in Asia with his recent show at Daegu Art Museum, Korea.
Developing His Unique Style
The earlier years of training and exposure could be considered conventional, were it not for the way Katz responded to his training. Katz studied at The Cooper Union Art School in New York from 1946 to1949, only a few blocks from where a teenage Basquiat would later sleep on park benches in Tompkins Square Park. Katz graduated with a scholarship to study at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture so he soon traded the hustling kinetic metropolis of Manhattan and the Bauhaus vibes of Cooper Union for the strong light and expansive nature found in Maine. At Skowhegan, he was encouraged to paint in ‘plein air’ (outdoors), allowing him to render a more vivid impression of the natural environment and light with this own interpretation and style. He brought this training and style back with him to New York, and it was against the backdrop of Abstract Expressionism that he began to re-approach the “urban manner” of the city, navigating his way through the social upheaval and cosmopolitanism of Manhattan with its stylized and performative roughness, and easily discernible social striata.
Painting was a way for Katz to use that stark natural view of life to define taste and track the myriad identities and their trappings in the concrete jungle.
Beyond Abstract Expression and Pop Art
Against the backdrop of Abstract Expressionism in 1940s-50s, Katz had been inspired by -- but did not adopt -- its aesthetics entirely. “Realistic paintings never got what I was and the abstract people didn’t get it either, so I was at some point in between.” Although not directly associated with Pop Art, the unprecedented approach to portraiture that Katz adopted foreshadowed the movement.
Even before Warhol’s Double Elvis (1963), Katz had already employed the use of double portraits, “I did the flat backgrounds and the figures in the late '50s, that was the most sensational style and everyone was looking at them.”
With inspirations taken from billboard advertising, films and television that dominated American life, he started creating large-scale paintings in the early 1960s after moving into a loft in the gutted out commercial slum of SoHo in lower Manhattan, an area that locals called Hell’s Hundred Acres.
His massive canvas of group portraits were already depicting the emphatic divisions in social life of America from the 1960s to the modern time. Such as in his widely-known Lawn Party from 1965 and Cocktail Party from the same year, which depict two entirely different classes of people in the same country.
In Lawn Party, the vibrant hue suggested a relaxed, harmonic atmosphere of the ‘nature-loving Maine’, while in Cocktail Party, the faces of the subjects are pale and almost emotionless, perhaps signifying the absurdity of the interest-oriented social occasions attended by New Yorkers back in that era, while areas of the city burned. Integrating symbols of American culture into his creation, Katz made himself an essential part of the culture, and in some ways its critic.
Art and Life
Katz pioneered the medium of ‘cutouts’ from 1959 and onward. A cutout is a flat painting in the silhouette of the subject, which resembles a sculpture, and in Katz’s style, were often depictions of members of everyday domestic life for the artist. The work stresses its scale of being a life-size figure of the subject, allowing viewers to approach its contour and its size as if feeling the presence of the actual human figure as they walk around it.
Apart from the portraits and cutouts, Katz delineates motifs from nature with his extraordinary scheme of color. In the article he wrote for The New Criterion, he revealed that when he looked at the motif in his work Buttercup (2002), he did not settle for the light nor the color tone. “If I settle for the tone differences, the green becomes dead. If I settle for the correct light, I don’t have the tonal difference and the painting becomes conventional.” Looking at these pieces of evidence, it is undoubtable that Katz never yields to any comfortable or handy way in creating his works of art.
In addition to his son Vincent and daughter-in-law Vivien, and many of his acquaintances and friends, his wife, Ada, became a central figure in Katz’s depictions of his domestic life.
Katz met Ada in 1957, at an opening for a duo show at Tanager Gallery, in which Katz showed. He was immediately transfixed by her charm and her intellectual ability.
“She’s very intellectually curious and she was reading Beckett before most of the guys here.” She was the central subject in more than 250 pieces of Katz’s work. “Ada literally stops the traffic the first time she came in a bathing suit … she goes to the beach, guys fall over.”
Beyond being the most-portrayed figure in Katz’s paintings, Ada is also the ‘first reader’ of his works. “If it’s a rough painting and she likes it, I know it’s okay.”
Alex Katz and Now
Since the 1950s, Katz has unceasingly experimented with different mediums of artmaking centralized in the theme of urban folks and surroundings and eventually developed a style unique to his own. He had departed from the promotional genre of portraiture during the time when high-style art dominated the art world. Instead of conveniently following the emerging movement of Abstract Expressionism, he paved his own separate path with the use of novel color schemes and compositions.
Even to this day, Katz still persists in exploring different mediums. In an interview with The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) in 2013, the artist revealed that he was experimenting with an advanced version of his cutouts, the ‘sculptural cutouts’. He never runs out of ideas, constantly surprising his audience with his passion and talent in art.
Katz’s works are widely collected by major museums globally, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; The Tate Gallery, London, England and Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan.