Alex Katz, Ted Berrigan, 1967, oil on linen, 121.9 cm x 121.9 cm, Photo courtesy PaceWildenstein , New York.
A large-scale exhibition of the work of Alex Katz, one of the most influential American artists of the past 50 years, opens to the public at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Alex Katz: New York comprises some 40 paintings and aquatints, focusing mainly, as the title suggests, on his relationship with his native city. It is the first exhibition to concentrate primarily on this aspect of Katz’s work. The exhibition presents many of his celebrated portraits, including those of his family – his wife and lifelong muse, Ada , and his son Vincent – and of his distinguished circle of friends, including poets, writers and artists, many shown against the backdrop of New York City. The exhibition also includes architectural views of the city, with its famous Manhattan sky line and Modernist architecture. link
Alex Katz: New York provides a fascinating overview of Katz’s distinctive body of work, which has been described by the distinguished academic Donald Kuspit as “a new kind of American social realism”. Remaining true to his original figurative style, despite the prevailing move towards abstraction, Katz has continued to create his flat, brightly-coloured works, which blend perspectives from popular culture with the poise and composition of classical painting. Despite their apparent simplicity, they have an unmistakable metropolitan elegance and sophistication synonymous with New York .
Katz is best known as a painter of people, and the wide cross section of his portraits featured in the show demonstrate the variety which he has brought to the genre. They include dramatic variations in scale, abrupt cropping of images, and such subtle artifices as appearing to place his subjects in a luxuriant outdoor setting, which is, in reality, another Katz painting. Pride of place among the portraits goes to the poets and writers, many from the New York School , who made up the artist’s circle of friends and whose names constitute a veritable who’s who of New York cultural life.
Michael Lally from ‘Face of the Poet’, 1978, is a portrait of the Irish-American poet, which Katz made for inclusion in a book of Lally’s poems entitled March 18, 2003, a critique of the invasion of Iraq, which took place on that day. In some cases we need to look behind the title to find the poet or writer being portrayed. The apparently anonymous figures in Marine and Sailor, 1961, are in reality the poets Frank O’Hara and Bill Berkson. The former is also featured in the Face of the Poet series of aquatints, as are several others including Allen Ginsberg, John Godfrey and Frank Lima.
A number of portraits of his Katz’ wife, muse and model for 50 years, Ada, are also featured, including Night 2, 1987, and – in a typical Katz painting within a painting – in Thursday Night 2, 1974, while the artist’s son, the poet Vincent Katz, can be seen Blue Coat, 1990, and Roof, 1989, were we see him dancing with his wife Vivien.
A more general social realism can be seen in Up at the Bleachers, 1983, and After Hours, 1993, where we can almost hear the buzz of conversation between friends. In Hiroshi and Marsha, 1981, the artist’s friends are depicted against the background of Lower Manhattan, with the subjects’ place and the stylish beauty of New York deftly distilled into a single painting.
Among the most striking works devoted to the architecture, as opposed to the people, of New York are those of the city at night, imposing canvasses reminiscent of that other great chronicler of New York life, Edward Hopper – although more stylized and largely devoid of human figures. For example, the melancholic Purple Wind, 1995, masterfully contrasts the homely warmth of the windows of private residences with the purple night outside. Co-curator of the exhibition, Juan Manuel Bonet, sees “the great painter that is Katz like a Hopper of the second half of the 20th century, as a painter who occupies a comparable space to that which Hopper occupied in his day. Hopper died in 1967, and Katz said that he had reached ‘more people than any other American artist’. Amongst other things, both Katz and Hopper have been capable, each in their own way, of building their own vision of New York , of retaining and eternalizing instants of a life of a metropolis, and of making us see it through their eyes”.
Alex Katz was born in Brooklyn , New York , in 1927 and studied at The Cooper Union in New York and at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine . His work has been the subject of nearly 200 solo exhibitions internationally since he first exhibited in 1954.
He became widely known internationally following a large-scale retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1986 and a print retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1988. These were followed by major exhibitions of portraits and landscapes at Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden (1995), Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno, Valencia (1996), P.S. 1/Institute for Contemporary Art, New York (1997-1998), the Saatchi Gallery, London (1998), Galleria Civica di Arte Contemporanea, Trento (1999), and Kunst und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn (2002).
In the summer of 2003, the first European exhibition devoted solely to the artist’s celebrated portraits opened at the Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice . An exhibition of the artist’s aluminum cut-outs opened at the Deichtorhallen Hamburg in 2003 and traveled to the Museum Moderner Kunst Kaernten, Klagenfurt , Austria .
Alex Katz’s work can be found in numerous public collections worldwide.
In 1994, The Cooper Union, where he had studied, endowed the Alex Katz Visiting Chair in Painting, and in 2000, honored the artist with its Artist of the City award. The Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Art of Alex Katz at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville , Maine , presents exhibitions of its in-depth collection of Katz’s paintings, cut-outs, drawings, and prints.
The exhibition is curated by Juan Manuel Bonet, independent curator, consultant, art historian and former Director of the Reina Sofía National Museum of Modern Art, Madrid, and Rachael Thomas , Senior Curator: Head of Exhibitions at IMMA.