Caught in the Act

Before Pop Art, There Was Alex Katz

By Jared Bowen

April 28, 2012


Alex Katz with Jared Bowen (Photo: Greater Boston)

BOSTON — He’s been painting long enough to inspire Warhol, achieve icon status and now he has a show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
After Picasso but before Pop Art, there was Alex Katz. For over 50 years, with a dogged consistency, Katz has painted with a very singular sensibility. His portraits are bold, vibrant and clean. Now, according to MFA Co-curator Edward Saywell, they are also iconic.
“They really pop in a wonderfully rich and tremendous way. What he’s interested so often in is color, shape, form and style,” he said.

The new retrospective, Alex Katz Prints, is now on view at the MFA. It could be easy to take Katz for granted. The work he began in the 1950s is quite widespread today, but the style is all his, says Saywell.
“Alex is not a Pop artist. He really set out when he graduated from the Cooper Union in 1949 to ask the question, ‘How could realistic painting be fresh, be new, be vigorous’ at that time?” he said.      
Alex Katz explained the transformative experience of getting out of New York City once in awhile.
“New York was a provincial city, really, and it was either regional art or provincial modern art. And somehow seeing Jackson Pollock trying to paint outdoors freed me,” Katz said.
Now age 84 and with the vigor of a much younger man, Katz says it was the 1960s when he came into his own.
“The wide angle movies and TV, and all those popular things, were making images that were not in art, fine art. And I was being inspired by those images, billboards, etc.,” Katz explained.
Gray Day, by Alex Katz

Which he applied to people—himself, family and friends, who were often the cultural elite. He was and is consumed with simply capturing appearance, no emotion or psychology.  He says he’s only putting down what’s in front of him. Early on, that did not endear him to critics.
“You sometimes get a little, angry. But mostly it didn’t—when I got my first huge, bad review, I was really shocked. And it was in the Sunday Times, a 9x12” reproduction and he spent the whole thing saying how bad I was and I sold my character out. I called up my mother and she said it’s about time someone took you seriously. And that was it,” he said.
With a passion for fashion, the painter-turned-sometimes model has also taken knocks for mixing fashion with art. That never affected him either.

When I commented that there was not one badly dressed person in all the MFA galleries, Kat’s laughed. “No, I don’t think so,” he said.
Jared Bowen reports for Greater Boston. (Photo: Greater Boston)

Pass through the show and you’ll begin to see a familiar face. She is strikingly beautiful and always exceptionally dressed. She transitions from youthful beauty to a vision of mature elegance. She is Ada, Katz’s wife and muse of 54 years.
“She’s a perfect model for one thing, and she can be cast in a lot of different roles. She’s very flexible, her face is very flexible. She can be American beauty, classic beauty, a housewife. And she’s around!” Katz said. But he acknowledged that she doesn’t get too involved in the process. “She’s really bored with posing and it doesn’t go too long,” Katz said with a grin.
Katz’s other love is Maine, where he has summered for as long as he’s painted. His landscapes of the region are masterful evocations of summer in New England. The state’s landscape is what made him want to be a painter.
“The colors, the light, the subject matter, his love of being able to play with the sense of reflection and refraction of light and shadow, it really comes through in all of his Maine work,” said Saywell.
It’s an incredible, brilliant career for a man who only ever just wanted to paint what was there.


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About the Author
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 


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