While Alex Katz attended a vocational arts high school and pursued art studies during college at Cooper Union—which he describes as “a romantic Bauhaus school that specialized in ‘Modern Art’”—it wasn’t until later that he discovered, in his words, “a reason to devote my life to painting.” This epiphany occurred during a summer studying at Skowhegan School of Painting and Culture in Maine in 1949, when Katz first painted en plein air. Five years later in Greenwich Village, surrounded by the New York School’s great figurative painters, and working as a mural assistant at Loews movie theaters, Katz had his first one-man show. To his chagrin, only one painting sold, and its buyer was his then-boss—who was paying him next to nothing. Now, 60 years on and over 200 solo exhibitions later, plein air painting is still a driving force for Katz—he exclusively paints from life, for portraits and landscapes alike, and returns to Maine every year. In a new exhibition at Timothy Taylor Gallery, the artist is explored through three decades of his prolific sixty-year-plus career—the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s to be exact—offering a glimpse into the artist’s mature achievements in translating life into art.
Known for his timeless portraits of chic, pensive women—his wife, Ada, frequently among them—or tranquil scenes from nature, Katz possesses a talent that lies in a keen sensibility for vibrant, pure colors, flat surfaces, and dynamic cropping, offering endless visual intrigue. Despite the widespread acclaim for his work at present, as well as in recent decades, the artist recalls that the ’70s were tumultuous: “People used to really hate my work. As late as 1975, I had a show in Paris and people were screaming in the gallery. They were saying this is terrible art and I should go back to art school.” Katz was undeterred, though, finding inspiration in the light at his home in Maine, as well as portraiture—painting close friends and family, and acquaintances from New York society circles—and always drawn to the task of capturing fleeting moments.
“I want to paint what I see, I don’t want to paint what someone else painted. I live in New York and I go up to Maine, and that’s what I paint,” Katz maintains. Timothy Taylor’s “Alex Katz: 70s / 80s / 90s” is a delightful narrative of the artist’s thematic range—from cinematic Pop-inflected cutout portraits on aluminum, to a serene double portrait of Ada, cows grazing in bright green pastures, and nighttime scenes of New York City skies. Within this wide scope, Katz maintains his signature ability to reduce imagery to its simplest forms and colors, embracing particular details and imperfections to best emphasize the beauty of his subjects.
“Alex Katz: 70s / 80s / 90s” is on view at Timothy Taylor Gallery, London, Mar. 19th–Apr. 16th, 2014.