Alek Katz: He has been called the “artist of the immediate.”
Katz acknowledged and then rejected abstract expressionism and developed his style. He has been called the “artist of the immediate.”
“More than anything else, New York is a city of superlatives, a place where the best, the brightest, the biggest is the norm.”
Marilyn J. Appleberg’s quote about New York applies equally to Alex Katz’s art. It deserves superlatives; his art is as big, bright, and brilliant as the city he calls home. He is as New York as the Brooklyn Bridge and lived his life straddling the Hudson River, bringing beauty and style to the urban environment.
Alex was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. His parents lived a life as big, bright, and brilliant as his art. They were both emigrants from war-torn former Russia, where they first met. Father Issak, “an apprentice aristocrat,” was a daredevil who would jump off bridges for fun, rode a motorbike, and stood up to neighbors who demanded no homes on the block be sold to African Americans. He was a handsome, well-dressed man with a love of style and culture. Issak became so ‘New York’ he was a coffee specialist selling “blend superb” to restaurants. Alex says his father was one of the biggest influences in his life.
Alex’s mother, Sima, was an attractive young woman and an actress in Europe and the Lower-East Side Yiddish theatre; eventually, she would own a movie theatre. Sima could speak six languages and, in her 50s, was a translator at the Post-War Nuremberg trials in 1945. Alex says that when his father heard that Sima was in New York, he “Looked her up, and knocked her up, and that was it.” They married on the 15th of June 1927, and Alex entered the world on the 24th of July. Brother Bernard followed him in 1932.
The family lived in a multicultural neighborhood in St Albans, where Alex drew pictures on the stairwell wall of his home with crayons. According to his yearbook, he showed his passion for art at high school, aspiring to be a commercial artist. Alex ran cross-country and was on the Varsity track team for Wilson Vocational School. Running was the other passion he would continue for the next seven decades.
In 1944 the boys tragically lost their father in a car accident. The loss of income may have been the driving factor behind Sima taking up the translator position during the Nazi War Crimes Trials so soon after Issak’s death while her youngest son was still in school.
In 1945 on the 14th of August, less than a month after he turned 18, Alex was drafted. It just happened to be VJ Day (Victory over Japan). He joined the Navy, and after a huge farewell party was sent overseas, he served in Japan, Europe and patrolled the Western Seaboard of the USA. He received the $300 payout to GIs on discharge and the 52-20 Club, which paid former service members $20 a week unemployment for 52 weeks when he returned. The money was a godsend for any aspiring artist and may have been used to purchase one of his eight zoot suits for the trendy young Katz.
In the late 1940s, Alex was making the commute on the subway from Queens to Manhattan, where he was studying art at the Cooper Union. He taught himself to draw by sketching the straphangers surrounding him on the train. The economy of line capturing gesture and expression required by these quick line drawings became the foundation of his signature style.
The pared-down detail of these early works translated into a figurative style entirely his own. An exhibition of the sketches was held in 2016 at the Timothy Tailor Gallery in New York, and Katz was interviewed by Vogue magazine.
“I made the drawings to learn how to draw fast from life…I like the subways because the people are so interesting to look at. The clothes and the colors and all that. I still like it.”
Many years later, his works would grace subway stations in New York.
In 1949 Alex was granted a scholarship for a summer course of 9 weeks of intensive study at the newly opened Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. The school was on 350 acres of farmland, forests, and lakefront and taught painting en Plein air. Alex was in the first class of artists trained at Skowhegan, and he would return again in 1950.
For the city boy, Maine was a revelation and became another lifelong passion for Alex. One of the founders of Skowhegan, Willard W Cummings, became a collaborator with Alex, and they endowed the Colby College Museum in Maine with a world-class collection of art. The Paul Schupf Gallery for the Works of Alex Katz was built at Colby College with the financial backing of Paul Schupf and the artistic support of Katz and Cummings. It now contains over 700 works, including Katz’s entire print oeuvre.
The Cooper Union taught Alex the technical and theoretical aspects of art. Skowhegan taught Alex to paint from life, and this suited his emerging style perfectly. Katz’s trademark technique is painting alle prima or wet on wet. This is the fastest and most straightforward method of painting; the work is done in one sitting without waiting for the paint to dry. The works display spontaneity and capture transient moments in time; for landscapes, it is that moment before the light changes; it captures a fleeting expression or posture in portraiture.
1954 was a big year for Katz, held his first solo exhibition at the Roko Gallery in New York. He had arrived on the New York art scene! He also bought a home in Maine as a summer residency and has returned every year. Eventually, he would be one of the teachers at Skowhegan, and he went on to lecture many art students in other institutions over the decades.
However, the New York art scene was inspired by the abstract expressionist movement and strangely became so conservative that works outside the style were not well accepted. Katz was told to go back to art school by some critics. He ignored them and continued to develop his style, which would not be pigeonholed into any particular movement.
Katz acknowledged and then rejected abstract expressionism and developed his style. He has been called the “artist of the immediate.” Katz himself says he paints “The Artifacts of Culture,” and his work lies in the immediate present. He is an extraordinarily prolific artist and is best known for his portraits, landscapes, and floral paintings; many painted on a huge canvas. His portraits are tightly cropped, and, with a blank background, they focus entirely on the subject. His favorite subject is his wife, Ada, and he has produced over 1000 portraits of her. From the 1980s, he began painting group portraits “to show how people relate to people and showed people touching each other.”
His flora works take the flowers out of any context with plain backgrounds, forcing the observer to focus on the subject. He began painting landscapes at Skowhegan, and in the 1990s returned to the subject with new eyes and began painting environmental landscapes on enormous canvases.
“Most landscapes are in the distance, so the idea was a wrap-around painting – one that wraps around you so that you’re in the landscape. They developed into 10 x 20ft paintings. It was a lot of fun!”
He met Ada Del Moro at an exhibition in Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street in 1957 while working at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York. Ada is a remarkable woman in her own right. She is also a first-generation immigrant whose parents are from Italy. She studied Biology and was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to study tumor genetics in Milan while still at university. She became one of the Eye and Ear theater founders who established Off-Broadway to encourage collaboration with writers and artists. In 1960 Ada and Alex welcomed son Vincent into the world, and Ada retired from working. Vincent and his Brazilian-born wife Vivien and their sons also became muses for Alex and subjects of many of his portraits.
Katz paints every day and says;
It took decades before his talents were recognized by the New York and World art scene. Over the years, he expanded his techniques and began producing collages which evolved into free-standing shaped artworks that straddle the line between sculpture and painting. These enormous works have also been displayed publicly in New York. He also explored printmaking using lithography, etching, silkscreens, and wood and linoleum cut methods.
He has participated in over 500 group exhibitions and over 200 solo shows internationally. Exhibitions are still being planned, with several opening in the last few months of 2021. Currently, he has an exhibition running in Paris, and in the next two years, others are planned for Korea, Spain, and The Netherlands.