1927 - Present
Influenced by the golden age of billboard advertising, Alex Katz’s paintings and cutout sculptures are monumental works depicting people in everyday moments of life in flat areas of eye-catching color. His highly stylized technique anticipated Pop Art.
Katz was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish parents who had immigrated from Russia. His mother was a former actress who loved poetry, and his father was a businessman who had lost a factory to the Soviet revolution. As the Depression took hold in America, the family left Brooklyn for St. Albans, a suburb of Queens, were Alex spent his childhood. He attended Woodrow Wilson High School for its creative curriculum, allowing him to devote afternoons to the arts.
Katz enrolled at the prestigious Cooper Union Art School in Manhattan in 1946. He studied painting there under Morris Kantor, the prolific Russian-born artist who instructed several pupils that would go on to become famous. Kantor trained his students in the major Modernist theories and methods, and experimented with many styles in his own work. Following graduation, Katz accepted a summer scholarship to the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine. It was there that he learned to paint directly from life rather than from drawings, especially in plein air settings outdoors. The practice marked a critical moment in his artistic life and continues to be a staple of his work, spending every summer for decades at a farmhouse in Lincolnville, Maine.
In this early stage of his career, Katz destroyed several hundred artworks while searching for his own approach. He has said that, “One thing I don't want to do is things already done. As for particular subject matter, I don't like narratives, basically."
During the height of Abstract Expressionism, he worked to develop a reductive style that falls somewhere between formalism and representation. For a time, he experimented with small collages of figures in landscapes, using hand-colored strips of paper. As he grew interested in portraiture, he began to paint more realistic images of his wife, Ada, and their circle of friends. His portrait Ada (1957) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, embodies this phase, showing the sitter facing us with an impassive gaze, her skin, hair, and clothes rendered in flat, vivid colors. Katz would eventually paint more than 200 portraits of Ada, as well as his close friends that included painters Larry Rivers and Fairfield Porter, photographer Rudolph Burckhardt, and poets John Ashbery, Edwin Denby, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler. It was at this point that he also developed the use of a monochrome background, another enduring signature.
In 1959, Katz developed a technique of painting relief portraits on wood and aluminum panels. While these “cutout” works stand freely like sculptures, their two-dimensional character reads like a road sign or painting. U-shaped stands and spotlights create a cinematic presence. These works marked a pivotal moment in Katz’s career, solidifying his use of visual culture to develop his pieces. It’s a format that he continued to develop for many years, as in the Metropolitan Museum’s portrait Philip Pearlstein (1978).
Adding billboards and television to his influences, Katz began making large-scale paintings in the early 1960s, often with dramatically cropped faces like those in movie close-ups. Another portrait of his wife, Ada Upside Down (1965) in the Museum of Modern Art collection uses this device. Despite the bright, eye-pleasing palette, his figures typically remain detached from their audience. Around this same time, Katz moved to an artists’ cooperative building in SoHo, where he has lived and worked ever since.
As he progressed, Katz began to favor groups of figures rather than single portraits, depicting the social world of artists, poets, and critics around him. He worked in this style for the next 15 years, making the compositions increasingly complex in painting and sculpture. His John’s Loft (1969) shows eight cutout figures at varying scales and perspectives, reading like a fractured view of a busy gathering.
By the 1980s, Katz’s appealing style and affinity for popular visual culture made him ripe for adopting the subject matter of supermodels in designer clothes, ubiquitous in American media during the era. His most famous version of this is a group of three female bathers in swimsuits entitled Chance; it was temporarily installed to great effect in an outdoor square of London’s village of Mayfair in 2016.
The past 20 years of Katz’s work have continued to evolve, largely turning away from portraiture to focus on nature subjects. He often characterizes his landscapes as “environmental.” These works attempt to envelop the viewer with their monumental scale, even adopting a painterliness not seen in his previous art. Another series includes an intriguing exploration of sunlight and shadows, as well as canvases filled with flowers. His most recent work of the past few years depicts dancers and the nude figure.
Alex Katz has had more than 200 solo exhibitions and nearly 500 group exhibitions since he began exhibiting in the 1950s. The Whitney Museum of American Art has hosted two major shows of his work, Alex Katz Prints (1974) and the traveling retrospective Alex Katz (1986). Other retrospectives have been hosted by the Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Jewish Museum, New York; the Colby College Museum of Art, Maine; and several abroad. His work is held in the collections of more than 100 public institutions worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate Gallery, London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
In 1996, Colby College opened the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz. The artist has had a long association with the school due to his activity in Maine, donating more than 400 works to Colby’s museum of art. The wing presents ongoing exhibitions of Katz’s paintings, cutouts, drawings, and prints, made possible through the generosity of former Colby trustee Paul J. Schupf and those given directly by the artist.
More information on Alex Katz can be found in the National Gallery of Art