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Alex Katz and Style

Neil Sefah

May 02, 2017

From his origins at the Skowhegan Art School and Cooper Union to his work throughout the American Northeast as a traveling artist, Alex Katz’s artwork has been in the public eye for over half a century, becoming one of the most influential American contemporary artists. He’s one of the most prominent artists when it comes to the field of Pop Art, a genre that boomed in the 70s and 80s focusing on high levels of stylization and minimizing of the artistic techniques used in a piece. The core of Katz’s work, as stated by him, is his need to draw and paint everything as he sees it. From the fields and wilds of Maine to the rush of New York, Katz’s primary concern was capturing the world in a way he believed to be accurate and representative of what he saw in it, honing his vision and then presenting it to the work in his own signature style.


A lot of Katz’s work (on a semantic level) can be summed up into two distinct themes, the city and the country. The work of the country includes the pieces of forested areas, of night, and compositions focused on the natural scenery of America, and the interaction it has with the people. On the other hand, the work representing the city shows the hustle and bustle of modern civilization, the stylish fashions and cutting edge trends of the times, and has a much greater focus on the people, through portraiture and figure based paintings. It is a real feat for such a body of work to exist with a style that feels as if it is truly quintessential in what it chooses to include or omit. Such artists can be difficult to find, but those who do have this quality have some of the most standout work imaginable.



Forest, 1992, Alex Katz, Aquatint, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Photograph © Albertina, Vienna; Peter Ertl. Art © 2011 Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.



While it would not be accurate to label Alex Katz as the inventor of pop art or codifier when it comes to the cabal of the East Coast figurative painters, his style was extremely impactful, making it one of the most definitive in both genres. Alex Katz worked specifically in mixing the observationally found nuance in his subjects with reduction and simplification of form and features, vetting what he wanted to keep in his subjects to make interesting stylizations. In a lot of ways his work can be seen as a cross-section between representative artwork and abstraction or modernism.



The Red Smile, 1963, Oil on canvas, 200.3 x 292.1 cm. Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Alex Katz Foundation l Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY



In the 60s and onward, a concept Katz very much found himself enthralled with was the idea of his pieces selling a feeling of “surface”. This feeling was accomplished by making his images feel flat, using shapes, clean application of paints and minimal blending or places where clear strokes. When seen up close, many of his works are devoid of heavy texturing or physical mark making, instead, line and shape on the piece demarcates areas or structures. Pieces like Red Smile, a portrait painting of Ada Katz (his wife and muse) from 1963, clearly show this style of working. This is also seen in more of his later work, like the large scale pieces that are found in the Alex Katz Permanent exhibition in our online exhibit, like Pas De Deux or Dagmar. This “surface” ideology naturally extends to his vanes and dioramas, like the piece The Wedding, from the Permanent Collection or the Ada weathervane that currently resides outside the Colby Museum of Art.



Dagmar, 2012, Oil on linen, 243.8 x 304.8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME



Katz, however, sometimes takes a much more different approach to subjects like environment and landscapes. Within pieces like East and Fog 2, you can see there is a much larger emphasis on selling an atmosphere, muddling the clarity of the shapes present in the landscape to better sell the general feeling of a place. The pieces hold small cues as to their actual location or structures that exist within. The process and physicality of making these paintings is clear, with the piece Green Dusk, where the sweeping brushstrokes along with the swatches of green paint that indicate leaves make one feel as if the piece is reacting to windy conditions.


Within our archives lies an exhibition featuring his work prominently; from the largest collection of his pieces no less. The Colby Museum of Art has a long history with Alex Katz, housing his a. This proved to be a natural combination, as the museum’s base in Maine and the art of the state ties into a great deal of Katz’s work on a semantic level. He spent a great deal of his life painting the Maine landscapes ’en plein air’, showing us the nature beauty of Vacationland in all it’s glory.

The and the space truly does him justice. The pieces are given their due space to breathe, with his large, incredibly ambitious paintings stopping it’s onlookers in awe.


As a natural conclusion of being an acclaimed and respected artist, whose work was very prolific throughout the global art community, it is without question that many artist today took influence from his work. The artists David Salle and Peter Halley provide two examples, with the former perhaps taking cues from Alex’s notes on presenting one’s vision, and the latter drawing more from Alex’s desire to capture surface, as Peter Halley’s work is very geometric. The illustrator Hiroyuki Izutsu appears to take cues from Alex’s style. While he works primarily in black and white, his simplification of objects and people, and his sense of composition evoke the same feelings that Alex Katz’s work tends to. As time moves forward, one can almost guarantee that his work will continue to be influential to other artists, as a key American artist of the latter 20th century. Take the time to experience his work for yourself in our Alex Katz Permanent Collection exhibit on the EAZEL webpage.