NEW YORK – A line in the Broadway show, Hamilton, asks why Alexander Hamilton writes like a man running out of time. This description might be equally apt for artist Alex Katz. Now 92, the artist who turned the art world on its heels in the 1950s has been painting furiously the last few years in his SoHo loft. Located in an artists co-op, this New York City building has been home since the late 1960s.
Instead of resting on some impressive laurels – his artistic career spans well over 60 years and runs the gamut from collages and cutouts to paintings – he has continued working at a near breakneck pace. A tireless and prolific artist, he is often working seven days a week, nearly all day long. His skill with the brush and penchant for paring down scenes to the most important elements – matched only by his artist’s eye – makes his work look simple. His flattened and cropped imagery and complex composition however are among his chief gifts and what most draws collectors to his work. He combines the best aspects of abstraction and representation in his work and his oeuvre includes landscapes, portraits and still lifes.
“Katz began using monochrome backgrounds, which would become a defining characteristic of his style, anticipating Pop Art and separating him from gestural figure painters and the New Perceptual Realism,” according to the artist’s website. In 1959, Katz made his first painted cutout, a form he would return to again in later years even after paintings dominated his work.
Born in 1927 in New York as the Depression began, he grew up in Queens raised by parents that had immigrated from Russia and were devoted to the arts. Katz attended a high school where he could take classes in the morning and spend his afternoons working on his art. Later studies at the Cooper Union Art School in New York trained him in modern art techniques but his painting style defies easy categorization.
One of his favorite – and most iconic – subjects has been his wife, Ada, who he began painting in the late 1950s. Katz estimates he has painted her more than 250 times. In 2006-07, the Jewish Museum presented the exhibition, “Alex Paints Ada,” focusing on about 40 of Alex’s paintings of his muse. Art critic Robert Storr said at the time Katz’s paintings here display a technique that “is predicated on careful premeditation and deft execution, on slow observation followed by meticulous design and refinement of shape and outline, as well as ruthless editing of pictorial information.”
Katz has had many solo and group shows over the years and his work is featured in many museum collections. “Acclaimed for his iconic portraits and impressionistic landscape depictions … Katz has inspired generations of painters,” according to Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York City, the gallery which now represents the artist in the United States. The gallery’s spring 2019 exhibition presented many of Katz’s Maine landscapes, where he has summered for several decades. “In these new works, Katz’s hand is bluntly material and inextricably sublime. He has fit his vision to the encroaching dark, engaging with mysteries he can almost summon in the paint,” according to the gallery’s press release for the exhibit.
At the same time that Katz has upped his painting intensity, museums also have been showing increased attention. The Dallas Museum of Art opened in 2019 an intimate contemporary solo exhibition titled “Focus On: Alex Katz,” offering a view into personally meaningful moments from each of the artist’s life in fall 2019. Featuring the artist’s specialties: portraits, landscapes, and party scenes, the exhibition will include a 2019 painting that is a planned acquisition by the museum as well a scarcely seen 1968 group of cutout portraits, One Flight Up, that presents a snapshot of the New York creative community that Katz was a member of in the 1960s, exchanging ideas with his fellow artists.
Colby College, which has mounted several exhibitions of Katz’s work over the years, owns about 900 of his artworks. It opened a nine-month exhibition in June 2019, surveying a group of early drawings inspired by his reading of Moby Dick while in art school. He revisited this topic during his summer sojourns to Maine.
Marrying flat color, complex composition and clean lines with a deceptively simple and idealized style, Katz’s art speaks the viewer in a way that few other artists have been able to.