Monday December 5th 2022/ Guggenheim museum. Through February 20th, 2023. Organized by Katherine Brinson, Daskalopoulos Curator, Contemporary Art, with Terra Warren, Curatorial Assistant, and with additional support from Andrea Zambrano, Curatorial Assistant.
Welcome back friends!
And welcome, this week, to an exciting, beautiful, slightly unnerving, highly moving, colorful, graphic, mid 20th-early 21 st century art exhibit, including paintings, oil sketches, collages, prints, and freestanding “cutout” works, celebrating eight decades of creative production by Alex Katz (born 1927), a figurative, “modern” American artist, who sprang into popularity, in the early 1960’s, and best known for his graphic, advertising-like, “cool and collected”, close-cropped portraits of family and friends, with bright, flat colors, and at times also, bathed in interesting light.
An artist, Katz, looking to evidently telegraph physical and emotional complexity: not only sensations, energy, contrasting colors, and sometimes unusual light, but also, interested in allowing contradictory perceptions to coexist: what incredible intimacy and yet strong impersonality in his works, what intriguing reserve often from his characters, and yet, what verve, sass, also co-exist, and at times even, what great humanity can be found, and finally, what great sensuality in his technique.
A prolific artist, Alex Katz, who evidently was, and still is, influenced by many artistic movements, from far and near, mostly figurative, and also, abstract: from figurative 17th to mid 19th century Japanese woodblock prints, or “ukiyo-e”, who tend to depict graphically ephemeral beauty and pleasure, to figurative 19th “post-impressionism”, in particular Degas (1834-1917) who shared a love of depicting interesting perspectives when observing dance, or Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and his illustrious flat graphic advertising posters when depicting theatre, to often more abstract yet still figurative 19th-early 20th century “fauvism” (strong colors and brushstrokes) from painters such as Matisse(1869-1954), to other American painters from his own generation, from “abstract expressionism” artists (focusing on form and color, more than the object), such as Milton Avery (1885-1965), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Jasper Johns (born 1930), or even more figurative Alice Neel (1900-1984), or pop art precursor, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), or comic strip influenced, pop art, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), or, of course, pop art leader and celebrity, Andy Warhol (1928-1987), to mention just a few.
Interestingly, in such a rich art world context, Alex Katz chose to be a figurative artist, and has, and is still, especially interested in depicting mostly, striking, personal, every day, intimate life portraits of many of his friends, and of his charismatic muse, and later wife, Ada, or interested as well occasionally, in landscapes deriving from either New York City or Maine.
And what particularly resonates for me with Alex Katz’s unusual, unparalleled, and cherished work, celebrating the fortunately often beguiling and magnetic everyday “instant” (whether it is a portrait or a landscape), is Katz’s uncanny ability to fuse flatness of color, form, economy of line, and cool emotional detachment, with some form of contradictory feeling, and present his paintings almost as advertising or graphic design, as is the case, in this wonderful charming and yet slightly sullen and impersonal painting, from the 1970-80’s, depicting two slightly enigmatic teenagers, with great attention, being given by Katz here, not only to its unusual composition and viewpoint, but also to the complexity of what these boys make us feel.
Such an inscrutable duo, and typical of teenage years. And yet despite the mystery, what innocence, beauty and grace also pervades this work.
Of course, there was much to discover in this great Katz exhibit organized at the Guggenheim, and I will share, just a few more works I especially enjoyed: 1 drawing, and 12 other paintings, which particularly struck me (from 6 types of themes), to illustrate how Katz’ style evolved from his early years, onwards.
And we shall observe, when we get to Katz’s “mature” style, that despite the seeming “coolness” and the slight impersonal, detached quality, often found in Katz’s acclaimed works, we can truly sense how energized and inspired Katz was, and still is, by his every day personal relationships with close loved ones, or with nature/or a captivating outdoor or urban landscape, allowing him to grasp like no other, an interesting “instant”.
And we shall admire how Katz is then able, with great ease, to create unusual and arresting pictures, often overflowing great beauty, among detachment and feeling.
How about that?
And we’ll look at the 6 following themes:
1)A subway atmosphere (drawing)
2)A simple indoor gathering (1 painting)
3)A simple outdoor gathering (1 painting)
4)Portraits of artist friends (3 paintings)
5)NYC imposing urban landscape at night (2 paintings)
6)Iconic portraits of his wife and muse Ada (5 paintings)
1)Let’s first start by looking at a “subway” drawing from his early years, in the 1940’s:
And here, what interests me, is the already present “cool and collected” attitude of all subway riders, present, yet all lost in their own world.
2)Let’s now look at a simple, graphic, and colorful “sit down” gathering painting, from the following decade (in the 1950’s):
Definitely an early “fauvist”-like Katz painting for me, reminiscent of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) works, totally avant-garde, and already super flat, and whose color palette and simple shapes remind me as well, of another modern, brilliant, and “flat” American painter, Milton Avery (1885-1965).
And still pretty simple, and not yet, representative of Katz’s richer “mature” style.
Let’s admire now, this wonderfully vibrant Avery work:
3)And now, let’s look at another great early outdoors work by Katz (and still a relatively simpler Katz outdoor work from the 1950’s and closer for me, to an illustration than a painting): a wonderfully radiant lake scene in Maine from Katz, with the same kind of soft palette, flatness, barely drawn characters, and relaxed, every day family scene.
4)Let’s now take a look at a few portrait works (3) from the 1970’s and 1980’s, where Katz’s painting style finally matures, and his command of shapes, light, and often contradictory emotions, bewilders.
And let’s stop for a second to “really look” at his unique personal style with these following “mature” portraits: a “flat” style that is slightly more “incarnated” than in his earlier years, yet always tinged with a slight impersonal, “air brushed” or perhaps “solemn” quality, as one senses Katz’s pursuit of catching a “perfect” interesting instant, infused with detachment, and yet co-existing with feelings, intimacy, and humanity.
And Katz “sitters” were often comprised of his own close knit network of friends, including poets, artists, dancers, musicians, and critics, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Taylor, or Allen Ginsberg.
Admire below, the reserved, serious, and yet relaxed, everyday qualities of this work, delightfully and delicately light bathed, as Katz depicts John Ashbery, one of the most influential poets of post-war United States, and his partner, David Kermani.
So stately, serious, yet natural, and so gorgeous.
And we can also tell how awe-struck as well, Katz is, to be painting them.
And I especially enjoy the subtle natural sunlight “stains” warming up the grey sofa, and the sun’s reflection upon their faces (and David’s light blue sweater), which truly enhance this work, and softens its “solemn” quality.
And before admiring the 2 other Katz portraits, Katz’s flat and illustrative painting style also, at times, reminds me also, of another 20th century important figurative American painter: I am thinking of Alice Neel (1900-1984), a close friend of Andy Warhol’s, and whose “illustrative” style throughout her long career as well, despite not being as flat, or as impersonal or “solemn”, still reminds me of Katz, because of its “natural” quality), who also loved painting her network of friends and family at times, and addressed as well, social or political commentary in her work.
Let’s take a look at one of Neel’s portrait to compare their styles:
So beautiful, natural, and slightly more personal and joyful.
And let’s get back now to Katz, and his powerful 70’s and 80’s beautiful, vibrant, colorful, natural, yet slightly unnerving, always flat, and a tad impersonal, portraiture paintings:
I am also particularly drawn to this second 1970’s outdoor painting, reminiscent to me, of magazine pictures seen in “Harper’s Bazaar”, or “Vogue” or “Life” at the time, and very graphic:
So stylized (love the surprising composition), glamorous, natural, and relaxed.
And yet, this painting also feels to me, slightly rigid or impersonal, in the “instant” depicted, open to broad interpretation, and yet, I love also that all the personalities of the multiple “portrait” painting, (“starring” really mostly, the most conservatively swim clad, for the times, if you ask me, and why not?), yes, all the personalities depicted are all fundamentally unique, and wonderfully well registered, and seem to be truly understood by Katz, and in such subtle ways.
Let’s now turn to another type of Katz instant: a “performing” instant:
And here, this painting of a performing band, specifically the original members of Meredith Monk and vocal Ensemble, portrays this wonderful trio “in action”, singing a long hypnotic song, lit up by the singers’ charisma and feeling while singing, giving it, (to me at least) way less impersonality, and way more humanity.
So vibrant, and also reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints (it must be the kimono).
5)Let’s now take a look at a completely different theme, interesting as well to Katz, a decade later in the 90’s: a more abstract one, and still a pretty architectural style for Katz, although his “flatness” is gone as we are now watching sturdy “urban” landscapes, in New York’s dark nights.
And let’s observe how the “abstract” urban nightlife, whether a random and huge New York building, dark because it is night time, yet lit from inside, or a reliable, and usual New York “aerial” train entering in the middle of the night, a New York station, also resonate powerfully for Katz:
So evocative of this city, despite its vagueness.
And in this subway work, we can feel the movement of the train, despite the immobility of the glimpsed instant:
So vivid as well, despite its simplicity, and what a great homage to the power and beauty of the night’s wonderful embrace, and at times, its profound darkness (despite all the activity), in NYC.
6) And finally, let’s look at what is one the most moving and iconic Katz themes to me, a number of portraits of Ada Del Moro-Katz, the love of the life of Alex Katz, and an accomplished, brilliant research biologist and Fulbright scholar, and later involved in the art circles, including as one of the founders of the Eye and Ear Theater, whom Alex Katz married in 1958.
What wonderful timeless muse to Katz, Ada has proven to be, having been painted by Katz over a thousand times, over the years.
And importantly, Ada is responsible for some of his best work (including the colossal in size and feeling, last painting, shown in this post).
And here, in this repetitive depiction of Ada from the late 50’s by Katz, I am reminded, unsurprisingly of Virginia Woolf, and her “To the lighthouse” 1927 novel, which investigates the means of perception to understand people, which actually, to its core, truly simply lies in the very act of looking (and listening if you ask me).
And I find a surprising depth of feeling in this “repetitive” Ada depiction (close to some of the repetitive explorations from the following pop art movement led by Warhol (1928-1987), yet in Katz’ case, the subject (“Ada”) repeated, is not quite identical, even if close in expression (contrarily to Warhol’s “explorations”), as though “repetition” for Katz, were a form of heightened attention, to the richness of Ada’s personality, and different, more intimate, than Warhol’s later “pop culture” repetitive “explorations” of identical items or people (whether soup, or celebrities).
So cool and collected, present and a tad shy. So cool and collected, present and more regal.
And the same can be said of this much later, from the 1990’s, more graphic still “repetition” of Ada, in which one potentially discovers, when paying attention, a plethora of life deriving from Ada’s meditative gaze.
And of course, how moving is it, to feel Katz’ unwavering devotion to his wife’s rich, and deep personality, even after 33 years of marriage, (it actually probably explains it, if you ask me).
Just mesmerizing. Inscrutable and solemn. Just mesmerizing. Inscrutable and approchable.
And in this 1960 painting, we can feel Ada’s performing arts abilities, how playful, vivid and interesting she is to Katz, knowing, (Ada), as dancers, singers, or actors do, just how to present themselves in attractive and alluring ways, and “seemingly” capable as well, of “letting down her hair” despite the conventional times, and the conservative (and nevertheless beautiful) 60’s black cocktail dress.
So fun, versatile, and playful, sparkling like a multifaceted diamond, or a disco ball, to those who truly “see” her.
And I am reminded once again of 20th century English literature:
The more you look at someone (with depth naturally), the more it exemplifies Virginia Woolf’s belief (which I wholeheartedly agree with) in her “To the lighthouse” 1927 novel, when she states that reality, (as people can be as well), is often complex:
“For nothing was simply one thing.”
And now, let’s turn to another Katz work, from a few years later, in this early 60’s, this advertising like painting of his wife, and here I actually like the reverse: the simplicity of the meaning of the painting (at least to me): I feel the passion, the overwhelming love Katz feels for Ada, in the choice of this ruby red background, and how completely transfixed he is, over her dazzling smile.
Just gorgeous and so moving.
And of course it reminds me of American romantic 1960’s toothpaste advertising:
And finally, here is Alex Katz’s most famous and gigantic in size and expression, work.
Featuring as often, Ada, at the height of her beauty, and at the height as well, of her intellectual and emotional capabilities, lost in thought, and whose gaze is inscrutable, yet seemingly also, unfazed by the huge rain drops. And again, I am moved by how Katz has been able to convey, not only her timeless beauty, and poise, but more importantly still, his eternal devotion to her, and all she means to him.
So, to sum up my feelings, about this wonderful and beautiful “Alex Katz: Gathering” exhibit, seen with great delight, last Monday, at the Whitney museum, in great company: what a great retrospective into Katz’s wonderful career, and into his infinite obsession with the importance of celebrating the interesting “instant” in our everyday lives, showing off how it can sparkle with beauty, attitude, detachment, intimacy and humanity, in all circumstances, especially when filled with a close network of friends, loved ones, indoors or outdoors.
So complex and moving!
And not to be missed!
Until next time friends, in the New Year, after the holidays!
Eternal butterflies 😊