Alex Katz was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1927. In 1928, at the outset of the Depression, his family moved to St. Albans, a diverse suburb of Queens that had sprung up between the two world wars. Katz was raised by his Russian émigré parents, both of whom were interested in poetry and the arts, his mother having been an actress in Yiddish Theatre. Katz 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, Katz entered The Cooper Union Art School in Manhattan.
At Cooper Union, Katz studied painting under Morris Kantor and was trained in Modern art theories and techniques. Upon graduating in 1949, Katz 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. During his years at Cooper Union, Katz had been exposed primarily to modern art and was taught to paint from drawings. Skowhegan encouraged him to paint from life, which would prove pivotal in his development as a painter and remains a staple of his practices today. Katz explains that Skowhegan’s plein air painting gave him “a reason to devote my life to painting.”
In the early 1960s, influenced by films, television, and billboard advertising, Katz began painting large-scale paintings, often with dramatically cropped faces. In 1965, he also embarked on a prolific career in printmaking. Katz would go on to produce many editions in lithography, etching, silkscreen, woodcut and linoleum cut. After 1964, Katz 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 Paul Taylor in the early 1960s, and he has painted many images of dancers throughout the years. In the 1980s, Katz took on a new subject in his work: fashion models in designer clothing.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Katz focused much of his attention on large landscape paintings, which he characterises as “environmental.” Rather than observing a scene from afar, the viewer feels enveloped by nearby nature. Katz began each of these canvases with “an idea of the landscape, a conception,” trying to find the image in nature afterwards. In his landscape paintings, Katz loosened the edges of the forms, executing the works with greater painterliness than before in these allover canvases. In 1986, Katz began painting a series of night pictures—a departure from the sunlit landscapes he had previously painted, forcing him to explore a new type of light. Variations on the theme of light falling through branches appear in Katz’s work throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. At the beginning of the new millennium, Katz also began painting flowers in profusion, covering canvases in blossoms similar to those he had first explored in the late 1960s, when he painted large close-ups of flowers in solitude or in small clusters.
Beginning in 2010, Katz literally re-framed his subject matter by employing more drastic cropping of the individual portraits. In the same vein he began composing paintings using multiple tightly cropped images of the same subject sequenced across the canvas similar to a filmstrip, but with the-non chronological variations in angle creating the impression of an environmental portrait. Katz continues to expand upon his present-tense landscapes finding more expansive and refined light. Recently he has begun to work from images taken with his iPhone, reversing the practice of working from life and flattening the image to make a 2D memory of a place and breathing depth into it through paint.
For more information on work by Alex Katz, contact [email protected]
Created over eight decades, Alex Katz’s portraits, social scenes, and landscapes capture the immediacy of visual perception in paint.
This video was created on the occasion of Alex Katz: Gathering, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, October 21, 2022 – February 20, 2023
Alex Katz: Gathering is organised by Katherine Brinson, Daskalopoulos Curator, Contemporary Art, with Terra Warren, Curatorial Assistant, and with additional support from Andrea Zambrano, Curatorial Assistant.