A quick look at artist Alex Katz in numbers alone is impressive: his work is held by more than 100 museums around the world; he has participated in more than 500 exhibitions; and, now in his ninth decade, he can boast one of the longest painterly careers on record.
A closer look, though, at the incredible body of work created by Katz and it becomes clear why the New York-based painter and printmaker is hailed as one of America’s finest. Developing a unique style in the later twentieth century that paired the panache of Pop Art with the experimentation of Abstract Expressionism to reframe the art of portraiture, Katz carved out a space for his own unique style that shows no signs of losing popularity on today’s market.
A Novice in New York
Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Katz studied art in high school. By 1946, following a brief stint in the Navy after graduation, he enrolled at Manhattan’s Cooper Union School. Known for its impressive alumni, Cooper Union afforded Katz invaluable exposure to modernist painting. Balancing these avant-garde approaches, though, was Katz’s parallel passion for plein-air painting – a technique he explored while on summer scholarships at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine, plein-air painting emphasized the direct study of figures and objects in nature. This directness for Katz would become central to his work as he focused his artistic lens in the field of portraiture.
For Katz, the second half of the twentieth century would become dominated by the portrait, not only of his wife, Ada, but also of friends, family, and celebrities. Flattening his compositions nearly to the point of abstraction, Katz amplified the role of color in his works to convey the vivacity of each person he painted. Though his choice of subject was firmly ensconced, Alex Katz’s painting media and methods changed dramatically. He experimented, for example, in the late 1950s with cut-outs, where he would paint a composition on canvas, then cut it out and mount it to a tailored piece of wood to create a sculptural form. Then, the following decade, Katz manipulated scale. Inspired by the larger-than-life imagery popular in contemporaneous advertising art, Katz expanded the dimensions of his work while at the same time magnifying his subjects to create works that at once conveyed both intimacy and monumentality.
Alex Katz prints: a passion for printmaking
It was also in the 1960s that Katz began to explore printmaking. Untethered to a specific print medium, Katz worked in the traditional modes of etching and woodcuts while also experimenting with the more modern techniques of lithography and silkscreen. While his painterly style had assumed a flattened perspective that conceptually streamlined his subjects, printmaking allowed Katz to explore anew the elements of depth and dimension. It also allowed Katz to push his Pop art fascination with the promotional image and the idea of the multiple in new ways.
A Look to the Landscape
As the twentieth century came to an end, Katz entered a new artistic phase inspired by the landscape. Playing with light and form as it appears in nature and at times adopting an almost Impressionist technique, Katz lent to these later works the same energy for experimentation and play of color as he had earlier in his career.
Fitting in with Alex Katz
In a 2018 interview with The New Yorker, Alex Katz reflected on his career by noting, “I never fit in . . . I’m not a Pop Artist, and people can’t see my work as realistic.” It is perhaps because Katz cannot be neatly categorized as an artist that his work is so brilliant and beloved by collectors the world over. Alex Katz prints and paintings already sell for formidable sums, and as acclaim for his art continues to grow so too will those price points. Before he is added to the pantheon of artistic masters, now is the time to add an Alex Katz painting or an Alex Katz print to your collection to enjoy for years to come.