Monday, January 20, 2014

Katz, Alex

The Red Smile
oil on canvas
200 × 291.5 cm
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA (Fair use)

Alex Katz's portraits are some of the most recognizable images in contemporary art. His model and muse for half a century has been his wife, Ada, who appears in over 250 of his paintings including this one. 

"(The) one thing I don’t want to do is things already done. As for particular subject matter, I don’t like narratives, basically." (Katz)

Alex Katz (1927-) is an American figurative artist associated with the Pop art movement. In particular, he is known for his paintings, sculptures, and prints and is represented by numerous galleries internationally.

He was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, as the son of an emigre who had lost a factory he owned in Russia to the Soviet revolution. In 1928, at the outset of the Depression, his family moved to St. Albans, a suburb of Queens, that had sprung up between the two wars. His mother had been an actress and possessed a deep interest in poetry and his father, a businessman, also had an interest in the arts. He attended Woodrow Wilson High School for its unique program that allowed him to devote his mornings to academics and his afternoons to the arts. In 1946, he entered The Cooper Union Art School in Manhattan, a prestigious college of art, architecture, and engineering. Upon graduating in 1949, he was awarded a scholarship for summer study at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine, a grant that he would renew the following summer. Skowhegan exposed him to painting from life, which would prove pivotal in his development as a painter and remains a staple of his practices today. He explains that Skowhegan’s plein air painting gave him “a reason to devote my life to painting.”

In the late 1950s, he became increasingly interested in portraiture, and painted his friends and his wife and muse, Ada. He embraced 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. In the early 1960s, influenced by films, television, and billboard advertising, he began painting large-scale paintings, often with dramatically cropped faces. After 1964, he increasingly portrayed groups of figures. He would continue painting these complex groups into the 1970s, portraying the social world of painters, poets, critics, and other colleagues that surrounded him. He began designing sets and costumes for choreographer in the early 1960s, and he has painted many images of dancers throughout the years. In the 1980s, he took on a new subject in his work: fashion models in designer clothing. In the late 1980s and 1990s, he focused much of his attention on large landscape paintings. At the beginning of the new millennium, he also began painting flowers in profusion. More recently he began painting a series of dancers and one of nudes. His work continues to grow and evolve today.

"He may not have the pop-culture fame of someone like Andy Warhol in his lifetime, but he's one of the few living artists with a very recognizable style. He has created a visual vocabulary.... (Karl Willers, director of the Nassau County Museum of Art)