It took a full retrospective of a major art world figure to change my perspective towards his artwork. Alex Katz’s artwork is not particularly inspiring. Katz’s subjects are difficult to connect with and it is challenging to discern the stories beyond his figures’ glazed eyes and haphazard glances. Despite my hesitancy, I decided to trek down Museum Mile on a sunny December day to see his retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. To my surprise, the exhibition, titled Alex Katz: Gathering, drew me into a new world of Katz’s artworks.
95-year-old Alex Katz was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Queens. He attended the Cooper Union Art School in Manhattan, where he realized he wanted to become a figurative artist. Upon graduation, he received a scholarship to the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture, where he continued his studies in Maine. After the nine-week summer residency, Katz moved back to New York, and by the mid-20th century, he had risen to fame in the downtown arts scene. Katz is best known for his close-up, large-scale figurative paintings of friends, poets, artists, dancers, and filmmakers from NYC and coastal Maine. His large-eyed subjects on monochromatic backdrops are inspired by the magazines, billboards, and movie screens speckled around the city. Beyond his unique style of portraiture, Katz explored collages, drawings, and cut-outs—a pleasant surprise while ascending the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda.
Some of the most enticing artworks of the exhibition were, shockingly, from the first series on display and some of Katz’s least celebrated works. At the beginning of his career in the 1940s, Katz produced intimate sketches of riders on the New York subway. The ripped, muddied pages from his notebooks are filled with bold lines of men in fedoras and women looking around at the strangers packed beside them. These quick sketches evoke the hum of public transport, and each individual’s movements and daily routines are dependent on Katz’s attention to detail and purposeful linework. This series creates a sense of reality in its movement, something lacking in Katz’s large-scale portraits.
Walking up the spiral ramp, another small artwork was alluring. The painting, “Untitled” (1951), is filled with abstract outlines and washes of paint in sullied reds, browns, and yellows that illustrate a group of people in a crowd. The artwork is inspired by Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, whom Katz admired for his radical energy and openness in his artwork. Similar to in his sketches, Katz’s rhythmic, jagged marks convey the chaos of the bustling urban crowds in New York. This excitement for his earlier works of the exhibit would soon decline, though, as the remainder of the exhibit was painting after painting of large-scale, simplified portraits of Katz’s family and friends.
One of Katz’s most portrayed subjects is his wife, Ada. Katz’s innumerable paintings of his beloved wife brought her into the public eye as his muse. Despite her iconic role in his career and artwork, she appears to have no emotion in her portrayals, similar to his other flat, emotionless portraits. “The Black Dress” (1960) depicts Ada in a painfully boring black dress in a series of six multiples within a single image. One of the Adas sits on a chair, while the other five stand aimlessly behind her with arms crossed, hands held together, or looking in the entirely opposite direction. “Upside Down Ada” (1965) depicts another bland portrait of his wife, but with a slightly more inventive perspective, depicted upside down.
“Yvonne” (1965) is another drab, close-up portrait of one of Katz’s American artist friends Yvonne Jacquette. While Katz’s style can be drab at times, the texture of his brushstrokes seen in Yvonne’s bangs and her fabulous black fur head scarf is beautiful.
Dawdling past excited hoards of tourists and visitors snapping pictures of the portraits, a large-scale painting of a group of dancers nearby was vitalizing. The eight dancers’ contorted bodies evoke shadows, muscles, and movement that many of Katz’s portraits lack. The work is titled “Paul Taylor Dance Company” (1963-1964) after the company Katz collaborated with to help design sets and costumes that he deemed “very unpleasant with garish colors.” Ironically, the dancers’ bright yellow, green, purple, and red leotards on the dark purple canvas were reviving after the incessant muted canvases of Katz’s traditional, close-up portraits.
The next painting beside the dancers is the most intriguing in the exhibition: “The Cocktail Party” (1965). The busy scene depicts men and women holding cocktails and cigarettes at the Katz’s SoHo loft, while conversing and interacting with one another. This peek into such an intimate scene is instantly mesmerizing. One man in a gray suit appears disinterested while listening to a red-haired woman in a bright pink dress speak to him. Another young man in a mustard yellow suit appears to have a smug look on his face as a woman in a red turtleneck smiles and looks longingly at him. The New York scene is complete with the city’s neon signs and lit windows from the apartments across the street that separate the bright white loft from the dark streets below.
It was intriguing to later discover that “The Cocktail Party” depicts numerous American creatives and friends of the artist, including poet Frank Lima, artist Sheyla Baykal, painter Al Head, writer Edwin Denby, and others. Katz began sketching his friends in real-time at the party before cutting his drawings up and reorganizing them into the painting’s composition. An infatuating and similar social scene is Katz’s “Mr. and Mrs. R. Padgett, Mr. and Mrs. D. Gallup” (1971). The large-scale work depicts a relaxed evening of the two couples conversing in a casual, colorful, and inviting scene. The blonde woman’s striped vest and the bright dark green sofa with gold detailing bring a vibrancy to the artwork, rare in Katz’s portraits. Ironically, it is in this scene that the brunette woman on the sofa, who looks longingly away from the others, cigar in hand, is the most attention-grabbing. While she appears like most of the women in Katz’s portraits—emotionless, bored, and dull—the context of the scene brings her countenance to life. Surely most can relate to being stuck at a boring cocktail party where all you want to do is go home. This kind of personable quality that Katz creates in his casual yet intimate genre scenes is captivating.
The eye opening Alex Katz: Gathering revealed another world of lesser-known art by Alex Katz. While the artist is best known for his “iconic” enlarged portraits and landscapes, his ability to capture the movement of life in his small drawings and social scenes is commendable. The exhibit could have been more energizing, exciting, and colorful if Katz’s traditional, muted, large-scale portraits were left at home in favor of his more obscure work. Needless to say, I am still not one of Katz’s biggest fans, but a visit to the Guggenheim to learn more about his fascinating relationships and to open your eyes to his lesser-known artworks is worth taking. In the case of Alex Katz, it is safe to say that less is not more. In terms of a retrospective, the opportunity to see so many artworks throughout his career allowed me to better understand his practice. Similarly, in composition,
Katz’s urban genre scenes with groups of vibrantly dressed
characters offer the enticing action and narratives that his portraits lack.
Margaret Rand is a senior in the College, studying Art History and Journalism. She’s a native New Yorker and proud cat mommy.