Alex Katz (born July 24, 1927) is an American figurative artist. In particular, he is known for his paintings, sculptures, and prints and is represented by numerous galleries internationally.
Alex Katz was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, as the son of an emigre who had lost a factory he owned in Russia to the Soviet revolution. In 1928 the family moved to St. Albans, Queens, where Katz grew up.
From 1946 to 1949 Katz studied at The Cooper Union in New York, and from 1949 to 1950 he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. Skowhegan exposed him to painting 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." Every year from early June to mid-September, Katz moves from his SoHo loft to a 19th-century clapboard farmhouse in Lincolnville, Maine. A summer resident of Lincolnville since 1954, he has developed a close relationship with local Colby College. From 1954 to 1960, he made a number of small collages of still lifes, Maine landscapes, and small figures. He met Ada Del Moro, who had studied biology at New York University, at a gallery opening in 1957. In 1960, Katz had his first (and only) son, Vincent Katz.
Katz has admitted to destroying a thousand paintings during his first ten years as a painter in order to find his style. Since the 1950s, he worked to create art more freely in the sense that he tried to paint "faster than he can think." His works seemed simple, but according to Katz they are more reductive, which is fitting to his personality."The one thing I don't want to do is things already done. As for particular subject matter, I don't like narratives, basically."
Katz achieved great public prominence in the 1980s. He is well known for his large paintings, whose bold simplicity and heightened colours are now seen as precursors to Pop Art.
Katz's paintings are divided almost equally into the genres of portraiture and landscape. Since the 1960s, he has painted views of New York (especially his immediate surroundings in Soho), the landscapes of Maine, where he spends several months every year, as well as portraits of family members, artists, writers and New York society protagonists. His paintings are defined by their flatness of colour and form, their economy of line, and their cool but seductive emotional detachment. A key source of inspiration is the woodcuts produced by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro.
In the early 1960s, influenced by films, television, and billboard advertising, Katz began painting large-scale paintings, often with dramatically cropped faces. Ada Katz, whom he married in 1958, has been the subject of over 250 portraits throughout his career. To make one of his large works, Katz paints a small oil sketch of a subject on a masonite board; the sitting might take an hour and a half. He then makes a small, detailed drawing in pencil or charcoal, with the subject returning, perhaps, for the artist to make corrections. Katz next blows up the drawing into a "cartoon," sometimes using an overhead projector, and transfers it to an enormous canvas via "pouncing", a technique used by Renaissance artists, involving powdered pigment pushed through tiny perforations pricked into the cartoon to recreate the composition on the surface to be painted. Katz pre-mixes all his colors and gets his brushes ready. Then he dives in and paints the canvas, 12 feet wide by 7 feet high or even larger in a session of six or seven hours.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Katz developed a technique of painting on cut panels, first of wood, then aluminum, calling them "cutouts". These works would occupy space like sculptures, but their physicality is compressed into planes, as with paintings. In later works, the cutouts are attached to wide, U-shaped aluminum stands, with a flickering, cinematic presence enhanced by warm spotlights. Most are close-ups, showing either front-and-back views of the same figure's head or figures who regard each other from opposite edges of the stand.
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. One Flight Up (1968) consists of more than 30 portraits of some of the leading lights of New York's intelligentsia during the late 1960s, such as the poet John Ashbery, the art critic Irving Sandler and the curator Henry Geldzahler, who championed Andy Warhol. Each portrait is painted using oils on both sides of a sliver of aluminium that has then been cut into the shape of the subject's head and shoulders. The silhouettes are arranged predominantly in four long rows on a plain metal table.
After his Whitney exhibition in 1974, Katz focused on landscapes stating "I wanted to make an environmental landscape, where you were IN it." In the late 1980s, Katz took on a new subject in his work: fashion models in designer clothing, including Kate Moss and Christy Turlington. "I've always been interested in fashion because it's ephemeral," he said.
In 1965, Katz also embarked on a prolific career in printmaking. Katz would go on to produce many editions in lithography, etching, silkscreen, woodcut and linoleum cut, producing over 400 print editions in his lifetime. The Albertina, Vienna, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, hold complete collections of Katz print oeuvre. A print catalogue raisonne is due for release by the Albertina in the fall of 2011.
In 1977, Alex Katz was asked to create a work to be produced in billboard format above Times Square, New York City. The work, which was located at 42nd Street and 7th Avenue, consisted of a frieze composed of 23 portrait heads of women. Each portrait measured twenty feet high, and was based on a study Katz did from life. The billboard extended 247 feet long along two sides of the RKO General building and wrapped in thee tiers above on a 60-foot tower. Katz was commissioned in 1980 by the US General Service Administration's Art in Architecture Program to create an oil on canvas mural in the new United States Attorney's Building at Foley Square, New York City. The mural, located inside the Silvio V. Mollo Building at Cardinal Hayes Place & Park Row, is 20 feet high by 20 feet wide. In 2005, Katz participated in a public art project Paint in the City commissioned by United Technologies Corporation and organized by Creative Time. The work, titled Give Me Tomorrow, reached 28 feet tall and 53 feet long on a billboard space above the Bowery Bar. Located on the corner of the Bowery and East Fourth Street in the East Village, the work was hand painted by sign painters and was installed during the summer of 2005.
Since 1951, Alex Katz's work has been the subject of more than 200 solo exhibitions and nearly 500 group exhibitions throughout the United States and internationally. Katz' first one-person show was an exhibition of paintings at the Roko Gallery in New York in 1954. In 1974 the Whitney Museum of American Art showed Alex Katz Prints, followed by a traveling retrospective exhibition of paintings and cutouts titled Alex Katz in 1986. The subject of over 200 solo exhibitions and nearly 500 group shows internationally, Katz has since been honoured with numerous retrospectives at museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Jewish Museum, New York; the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; Colby College Museum of Art, Maine; Staaliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden; Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Venice, Centro de Arte Contemporaneo de Malaga and the Saatchi Gallery, London (1998). In 1998, a survey of Katz' landscape paintings was shown at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, featuring nearly 40 pared-down paintings of urban or pastoral motifs.
Katz's work is in the collections of over 100 public institutions worldwide, including the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Carnegie Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; Cleveland Museum of Art; the Tate Gallery, London; the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tokyo; the National galerie, Berlin; and the Museum Brandhorst, Munich. In 2010, Anthony d'Offay donated a group of works by Katz to the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate; they are shown as part of the national touring programme, Artist Rooms. In 2011, Katz donated Rush (1971), a series of 37 painted life-size cutout heads on aluminum, to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the piece is installed, frieze-like, in its own space.
Throughout his career, Katz has been the recipient of numerous awards, including The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for Painting in 1972, and in 1987, both Pratt Institute's Mary Buckley Award for Achievement and The Queens Museum of Art Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Chicago Bar Association honored Katz with the Award for Art in Public Places in 1985. In 1978, Katz received the U.S. Government grant to participate in an educational and cultural exchange with the USSR. Katz was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for Painting in 1972. Katz was inducted by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1988, and recognized with honorary doctorates by Colby College, Maine (1984) and Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, (2005). In 1990 he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate member, and became a full Academician in 1994. He was named the Philip Morris Distinguished Artist at the American Academy in Berlin in 2001 and received the Cooper Union Annual Artist of the City Award in 2000. In addition to this honor, in 1994 Cooper Union Art School created the Alex Katz Visiting Chair in Painting with an endowment provided by the sale of ten paintings donated by the artist, a position first held by the painter and art critic Merlin James. In 2005, Katz was the honored artist at the Chicago Humanities Festival's Inaugural Richard Gray Annual Visual Arts Series. In 2007, he was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Design, New York.
In October 1996, the Colby College Museum of Art opened a 10,000-square-foot wing dedicated to Katz that features more than 400 oil paintings, collages, and prints donated by the artist. In addition, he has purchased numerous pieces for the museum by artists such as Jennifer Bartlett, Chuck Close, Francesco Clemente, Elizabeth Murray. In 2004, he curated a show at Colby of younger painters Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig and Merlin James, who work in the same figurative territory staked out by Katz.
In 1996, Vincent Katz and Vivien Bittencourt produced a video titled Alex Katz: Five Hours, documenting the production of his painting January 3rd. and in 2008, he was the subject of a documentary directed by Heinz Peter Schwerfel, entitled What About Style? Alex Katz: a Painter's Painter.