American figurative artist Alex Katz is perhaps best known for his large-scale portraits which became seen as precursors to Pop Art.
Katz was born in Brooklyn to Russian émigré parents on July 24, 1927. He began drawing with his father from a young age, and decided he wanted to study art. From 1946 and 1950, Katz was enrolled at the Cooper Union in New York, where he was taught by Morris Kantor, and later studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine where he learned to paint from life and developed his own highly stylised aesthetic.
During the mid-1950s, Katz became involved with the second generation of New York School painters such as Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers. He was also friends with leading poets such as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. During this period, Katz made collages of figures in landscapes alongside his paintings, influenced by his time in Maine as well as the views of New York state. These landscapes are all rendered in the same flat style which has become synonymous with his name.
Alex Katz is perhaps best known for his numerous portraits, particularly because he made them in the 1950s, a time when portraiture was considered passé among New York painters. Katz's prolific output of portraits – including over 250 of his wife and muse, Ada – reveals a fascination with human nature and expression that rivals that of the Old Masters or later figures such as Andy Warhol and Julian Opie.
Over the years Katz has asked numerous family members and even waitresses or strangers on the street to pose for him. His portraits tend to focus on colour and form rather than detail, and his subjects can appear simplified and sometimes isolated against their bright backgrounds. Often painted on aluminium, his figures have a strong presence, their gaze arresting to behold.
In the early 1960s, Katz began to paint large-scale canvases which often feature close-ups, as in Upside Down Ada (1965) or more recently in Oona (2006). These are said to be influenced by the images used in advertising and the dramatic crops of cinema. His most famous portrait of Ada is undoubtedly The Red Smile (1963) which is nearly ten feet wide and one of his largest portraits. In this monumental work Ada’s profile dominates the composition, outlined against a bold red background.
After 1964, Katz showed more interest in painting groups of people, particularly artists, poets, painters, critics and other figures from the art world. His sculpture One Flight Up (1968) is composed of more than 30 cut-out portraits of Manhattan’s popular party scene during the 1960s. In 1977, the artist created a frieze composed of the heads of 23 women which was painted onto a 247 foot long billboard and displayed above Times Square in New York City. Katz is also known for his portrayals of dancers and fashion models.
A Return to Nature
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Katz returned to the idea of landscape that first gripped his early work. He began making large scale paintings he described as ‘environmental’, that would allow the viewer to feel ‘enveloped’ by nature. Contrary to his early training in plein air painting, these works were born from an idea of a place rather than an observation from life. Here his characteristic lines and distinct forms seem to fall away; instead a looser painterliness begins to creep into his canvases. In 1986 Katz developed the idea further, painting a series of ‘night pictures’ that mark a turn away from the bold colours of his earlier work and show the subtle influence of Whistler and the Impressionists. With the turn of the 21st century Katz also began painting flowers in large numbers, creating stylised still lifes that recalled his first experiments with the genre in the early 1960s.
Katz's unique position in contemporary figurative painting is said to have influenced many painters and artists. At a time when all around him were turning to abstraction and gesture, Katz made his own path, pursuing the unfashionable choice of portraiture. He soon gained many admirers among artists such as Andy Warhol, who had also turned his back on Abstract Expressionism and began producing portraits on monochrome coloured backgrounds, just as Katz had. Today Katz’s closest follower is perhaps the British artist Julian Opie who is perhaps best known for his minimal portraits that reduce the sitter to a handful of lines without sacrificing emotion and expression.
Exhibitions & Collections
It is estimated that Katz has participated in nearly 500 group shows and been the subject of more than 200 solo exhibitions internationally over the course of his 60 year career. His very first solo show was held at the Roko Gallery in New York in 1954. His works are held in the collections of over 100 museums and galleries worldwide, such as MoMA in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Tate Gallery in London.
On the Market
As well as achieving critical acclaim throughout his career, Alex Katz has also enjoyed considerable commercial success however his prices have remained low compared to contemporaries such as David Hockney. It was only in 2019 that the artist passed the million dollar mark to become a blue chip name, a delay that the artist ascribes to his work never ‘fitting in’: “I’m not a Pop artist, and people can’t see my work is realistic, either.” With recent auctions seeing records for Katz being surpassed, demand for his work is finally set to grow.
Throughout his career Katz has also dedicated himself to printmaking, producing over 400 print editions across lithography, etching, silkscreen, woodcut and lino. Representing an affordable entry point to Katz’s impressive oeuvre, these are highly sought after by collectors today.