Alex Katz, born to Russian immigrants on July 24, 1927 in Brooklyn, is an American figurative artist known for his large-scale oil paintings, sculptures and prints. His works were seen as precursors to Pop Art though the artist was never directly involved in the Pop Art Movement. When he was just a kid, Katz began drawing with his father who was a business man, and from that moment he already knew he wanted to study art. From 1946 and 1950, Katz studied at The Cooper Union in New York and then at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine where he found and developed his own highly stylised aesthetic. His early drawings of the late 1940s already revealed a penchant for strongly contoured forms and simplified compositions.
During the mid-1950s, Katz got involved into the small circle of artists known as 10th Street. During this period, Katz particularly made collages of still lifes and landscapes. His first works encompassed natural elements like flowers or forests. Primarily, Maine and then New York landscapes were his very first influences. Those landscapes paintings are all rendered in the same style which is highly recognisable. His brightly coloured landscapes are painted in a flat style with dark contours which are reminiscent of everyday visual culture like advertising and cinema culture.
Alex Katz is also well known for his numerous portraits, which was not a popular genre for New York's painters in the 1950s. Katz's artwork reveals a fascination for humans such an extent that he painted over 250 portraits of his wife and muse Ada. His portraits show little concern for detail but focus on colour and shape. The people present in his paintings appear as simplified and often isolated. Katz has asked family members and occasionally waitresses or even strangers on the street to pose for him. In the early 1960s, Katz began to paint large-scale canvas which often feature close-ups or even cropped faces as in Upside Down Ada (1965) or more recently in Oona (2006).
His most famous portrait of Ada is undoubtedbly The Red Smile (1963) which is nearly teen feet wide and one of his largest portraits. In this portrait a red background occupies half of the canvas while Ada's cropped face stands in the other half. After 1964, Katz showed more interest in painting groups of people and more precisely groups of artists including poets, painters, art 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 23 heads of women. The billboard, which measured 247 feet long, was exhibited over Times Square in New York City. Katz has also dedicated himself to printmaking, producing over 400 print editions in his career. Some museums hold complete collections of Katz's prints, like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Katz achieved great public prominence in the 1980s and obtained widespread critical acclaim and commercial success.
It is estimated that Katz has participated in nearly 500 group exhibitions and more than 200 solo shows internationally for more than 60 years. His very first solo show was held at the Roko Gallery in New York in 1954. His works are represented by numerous collections of over 100 museums and galleries worldwide. They are included in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. And the Tate Gallery in London, among others. Katz's unique position in contemporary figurative painting is said to have influenced many following painters and artists.