The famous artist, Alex Katz was born July 24, 1927 to a Russian Jewish family, living in Brooklyn, New York, as the son of an immigrant factory owner, who had lost his business during the Russian Revolution. In 1928 the family moved to St. Albans, Queens, where Katz grew up in a mixed neighbourhood of English, Irish, German, and Italian households. When he was in second grade, he won the top prize in a citywide drawing contest for public-school children. At the age of 16 his father died suddenly and tragically and this loss framed the rest of his life.
From 1946 to 1949 Katz studied at The Cooper Union in New York, and from 1949 to 1950 he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. Skowhegan exposed him to painting from life, which would prove pivotal in his development as a painter and remains an important part of his practices today. Katz explains that Skowhegan’s plein air painting gave him a reason to devote his life to painting.
Every summer, Katz moves from his SoHo loft to a 19th-century clapboard farmhouse in Lincolnville, Maine. He has been a summer resident of Lincolnville since 1954 and developed a close relationship with local Colby College. He began his career by making a number of small collages of still life, Maine landscapes, and small figures. Katz has admitted to destroying a thousand paintings during his first ten years as a painter in order to find his style. After the 1950s, he has worked to create art more freely with seemingly simple works, but according to Katz they are more reductive, which is fitting to his personality.
Katz’s first one-person show was held at the Roko Gallery in 1954. Katz had begun to develop a circle of acquaintances within the second generation New York School painters and their allies in the other arts. He counted among his friends the figurative painters Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers, photographer Rudolph Burckhardt, and poets John Ashbery, Edwin Denby, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler. From 1955 to 1959, usually following a day of painting, Katz made small collages of figures in landscapes from hand-coloured strips of delicately cut paper.
Katz’s paintings are divided almost equally into two genres; portraiture and landscape. Since the 1960s he painted views of New York, the landscapes of Maine, and portraits of family members, artists, writers and New York society protagonists. His works are defined by their flatness of colour and form, with deceptively simple lines, and their cool but seductive emotional detachment.
In the early 1960s, Katz began painting large-scale paintings, often with dramatically cropped faces. In 1958 he married Ada Katz, who has been the subject of over 250 portraits throughout his career. To make one of his large works, Katz paints a small oil sketch of a subject on a Masonite board; the sitting might take an hour and a half. He then makes a small, detailed drawing in pencil or charcoal, with the subject returning, perhaps, for the artist to make corrections. Katz next blows up the drawing, sometimes using an overhead projector, and transfers it to an enormous canvas via “pouncing” which is a technique involving powdered pigment pushed through tiny perforations pricked into the cartoon to recreate the composition on the surface to be painted. Katz pre-mixes all his colours and gets his brushes ready. Then he dives in and paints the canvas in a session of six or seven hours.
After the mid 1960s, Katz increasingly portrayed groups of figures. He has continued painting these complex groups into the 1970s, portraying the social world that surrounded him. He began designing sets and costumes for choreographer Paul Taylor in the early 1960s, and he has painted many images of dancers throughout the years. After his Whitney exhibition in 1974, Katz moved direction to focus on landscapes.
By the late 1980s, Katz took on a new subject in his work: fashion models in designer clothing, including Kate Moss and Christy Turlington citing an interest in fashion because of its ephemerality. He also focused much of his attention on large landscape paintings, which he characterises as environmental. Rather than observing a scene from afar, the viewer feels enveloped by nearby nature. Katz began each of these canvases with an idea of the landscape, a concept where he is trying to bring the image alive in nature afterwards. In his landscape paintings, Katz loosened the edges of the forms, executing the works with greater artistic nuance than before in these giant canvases. In 1986, Katz began painting a series of night pictures—a departure from the sunlit landscapes he had previously painted, forcing him to explore a new type of light. Variations on the theme of light falling through branches appear in Katz’s work throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. At the beginning of the new millennium, Katz also began painting flowers in profusion, covering canvases in blossoms similar to those he had first explored in the late 1960s, when he painted large close-ups of flowers in solitude or in small clusters.
Beginning in 2010, Katz literally re-framed his subject matter by employing more drastic cropping of the individual portraits. In the same vein he began composing paintings using multiple tightly cropped images of the same subject sequenced across the canvas similar to a filmstrip, but with the-non chronological variations in angle creating the impression of an environmental portrait. Katz continues to expand upon his present-tense landscapes finding more expansive and refined light. Recently he has begun to work from images taken with his iPhone, reversing the practice of working from life and flattening the image to make a 2D memory of a place and breathing depth into it through paint. He has always pushed the boundaries of art and experience for his audience.
Katz has also produced some large public art works, notably in 1977, Alex Katz was asked to create a work to be produced in billboard format above Times Square, New York City. The work, which was located at 42nd Street and 7th Avenue, consisted of a frieze composed of 23 portrait heads of women. Each portrait measured twenty feet high, and was based on a study Katz did from life. The billboard extended 247 feet long along two sides of the RKO General building and wrapped in three tiers above on a 60-foot tower. Katz was commissioned in 1980 by the US General Service Administration’s Art in Architecture Program to create an oil on canvas mural in the new United States Attorney’s Building at Foley Square, New York City. The mural, inside the Silvio V. Mollo Building at Cardinal Hayes Place & Park Row, is 20 feet high by 20 feet wide. In 2005, Katz participated in a public art project Paint in the City commissioned by United Technologies Corporation and organized by Creative Time. The work, titled Give Me Tomorrow, reached 28 feet tall and 53 feet long on a billboard space above the Bowery Bar. Located on the corner of the Bowery and East Fourth Street in the East Village, the work was hand painted by sign painters and was installed during the summer of 2005.