Alex Katz: Echoes from history

Alex Katz

At 85, Alex Katz is now one of the elder statesmen of art, and, like Gerhard Richter (80) for example, a living legend. A professional artist for some 60 years now, his history extends back to a time that almost seems mythological.

The twentieth century was a thunderous revelation for art, and Katz, as history will reveal – though we know it already – was part of that much needed schism that broke artists free from the past.

His contribution to art is the subject of a compendious exhibition at the Yale School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. It’s reflective of Katz’ love of colour, his skill in commanding most artistic mediums with authority, and his ability to convey a feeling, a moment and a sense of time in everything that he has done.

The son of a Russian émigré, Katz was in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927, before growing up in St. Albans, Queens. He learnt his trade at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a highly influential institution.

It was here where, under the tutelage of Morris Kantor, he familiarised himself with, and was influenced by, modern art theories and techniques. This influential experience would change his life forever.

While that period was an instructive time, he found it difficult to establish or find a style that best suited him, that could best channel whatever feeling or line of enquiry he had. As such, little work exists from that period – he destroyed, he has speculated, around a thousand paintings.

“There didn’t seem much reason to keep them,” Katz once said by way of explanation of what motivated him to render obsolete this work. “The positive thing was what I got out of the painting, not the paintings.”

It was after the Second World War that he began to find a unified technique, and it is from this understanding, looking back that is, that we can see Katz’ importance and contribution to post-war American art.

There are echoes of pop art in his shiny, refined, bold and highly luxurious portraits of everyday Americans, while his commitment to capturing the authenticity of man’s experience, saw him equally at home with the figurative approaches.

The show has been arranged slightly outside of a direct chronological approach, with the curator favouring a study of the artist in terms of obvious themes that appear throughout his career, regardless of the decade or the medium of creation.

“At 85, Alex Katz is, arguably, the freshest and most active of the New York School old masters,” said Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art and curator of the exhibition.

“The generous loan of these works from his personal collection embodies crème de la crème Katz, while serving as a master class in unforgettable image-making.”

KATZ X KATZ at the Yale School of Art’s 32 Edgewood Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut, runs until March 10th.

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