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Brand-New & Terrific

The innovative early works of Alex Katz remain fresh and vital
Mark Cole, Curator of American Art and Sculpture
April 17, 2017

Blueberry Field, 1955. Oil on Masonite; 81.3 x 121.9 cm. Collection of the artist.  All images by Alex Katz (American, b. 1927), © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

One of the most acclaimed artists working today, Alex Katz surprised the American art world during the 1950s with his innovative portraits, interiors, landscapes, and still lifes. Almost 60 years later, his creations from this productive decade still look strikingly fresh and vital. Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s, the first museum survey exhibition of these pioneering works, showcases nearly 80 key loans from public and private collections. Together, they provide a fascinating look at a young, thoughtful, and ambitious talent developing his signature style for a remarkably successful career. Katz’s resolutely original approaches to art making, charted in this exhibition, inaugurated major directions in the art world that still resonate.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Katz was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927, and raised in Queens. After graduating from a local vocational school, he entered the Cooper Union, a privately funded college in Manhattan, where he enrolled in courses ranging from painting to typography. In 1949, on a summer scholarship to the famed Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Katz fell in love with the landscape of Maine. In 1954 he established a summer studio in the Maine coastal town of Lincolnville, which he still maintains as a respite from the urban environment in New York where he resides and works the rest of the year. Although Katz supported himself during the 1950s through a number of odd jobs—including house painting, carpentry, and frame carving—he remained steadfastly dedicated to his career in art. This perseverance paid off, for by the decade’s end, exhibitions of his work were drawing attention and praise from several leading critics and fellow artists.

Bather, 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on linen; 121.9 x 182.9 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.189. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The current exhibition’s title, Brand-New & Terrific, derives from Katz’s early manifesto announcing his intentions to invigorate traditional artistic subject matter. Creating work at a time when abstract painting dominated the art scene, Katz forged an ingenious way to wed abstraction with recognizable imagery by paring down his compositions to their fundamental elements. In retrospect, these works prefigured the subsequent development of Pop Art.

Two featured oil paintings suggest Katz’s variety of approach and evolution of style during this crucial juncture. Blueberry Field from 1955, a Maine landscape rendered with painterly patches of bright color, acknowledges the influences of contemporary Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, who placed a premium on gestural brushwork. In Bather, a 1959 composition, Katz presents Ada del Moro—his recently wedded wife and destined frequent muse—in an astonishingly reductive image that forsakes extraneous detail for areas of bold, emphatically flat monochrome, including a large area of blue that merges sea and sky. Gestural applications of paint are noticeably absent; instead, undifferentiated shapes with hard-edged outlines echo the artist’s forays into collage, an important medium he had mastered just a few years earlier.

Wildflowers in Vase, c. 1954–55. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Collage with cut and watercolored paper; 27.9 x 21.3 cm. Collection of the artist. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

During the summer of 1954, Katz produced his first collages, small landscape and still-life compositions constructed from cut and pasted sheets of hand-watercolored or commercially dyed paper. These works, demonstrating the artist’s extraordinarily deft handling of a razor blade, were created during evenings after long days of painting. One early example from about 1954–55 is Wildflowers in Vase, a sprightly image of multicolored blooms in a taupe vessel perched on a tabletop. Intimate and delicate, such collages countered the aggressive monumentality and lack of restraint characterizing much abstract painting at the time. Eventually their modest, spare arrangements of form would impact Katz’s work in oil, so vividly apparent in Bather.

Frank O’Hara, 1959–60. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on wood; 152.4 x 38.1 cm. Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Near the end of the 1950s, Katz invented his freestanding or wall-mounted cutouts, revolutionary blendings of painting and sculpture that were initially referred to as “flat statues.” These hybrid, ambiguous works—not quite fully two-dimensional or three-dimensional—have generated much scholarly discussion throughout the ensuing years. They originated through Katz’s dissatisfaction with the background of an oil painting currently in process. To remedy, he impulsively reached for a pair of scissors and detached the figure, subsequently affixing it to a wood backing. Thus launched a significant series whereby Katz painted directly on a plank of wood—or, in subsequent decades, a sheet of aluminum—only to excise the image with an electric saw. Frank O’Hara from 1959–60, among the first of these cutouts, depicts the critic, curator, and poet who was one of the artist’s earliest advocates.

Four People, 1953–54. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on Masonite; 60.9 x 60.9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Seventy-fifth anniversary gift of the artist, 1991.310. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Katz has a long association with the Cleveland Museum of Art, reflected in his generous gift of Four People, a pivotal early work of 1953–54, in honor of the museum’s 75th anniversary in 1991. During an early phase in the 1950s, Katz studied amateur black-and-white photographs in order to analyze their visual cues. This process energized him to paint broadly, while blocking out forms, adding colors, and omitting details—all in the service of augmenting the pictorial flatness and stillness he admired so much in the original source material. Four People is among the finest of these early photo-based paintings, and because of its high degree of abstraction it uncannily anticipates the reductive portraits he produced later in the decade.

As a postscript to Brand-New & Terrific, an additional gallery highlights later works by Katz from the museum’s permanent collection. Dating to the 1960s and ’70s, these objects are anchored by Impala from 1968, a monumental canvas occasioned by a drive through the mountainous landscape of Utah. The painting’s point of view approximates a driver’s quick sideways glance, showing us the profile of Ada del Moro immersed in thought as she sits next to Katz in the titular Chevrolet. Also featured are six prints by Katz in various media—incorporating portraiture, landscape, and still life—demonstrating the great extent to which the artist’s work from the 1950s informed his subsequent career. 

Impala, 1968. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927).  Oil on canvas; 182.9 x 276.9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund and Gift of the Eppler Family Foundation and Agnes Gund, 1983.68. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY