New at the Neuberger
Brand-New and Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s
By Margot Clark-Junkins
In 1961, a 33-year-old American artist named Alex Katz, who was already fairly well-established in the art world, published a manifesto in a small art periodical called Scrap (15 cents an issue). In “That Is to Say/The Artist Talks,” Katz casts an eye over his work thus far and asserts that “a brand-new painting without much quality can be exciting but there is nothing quite like a painting that is brand-new and terrific.” And he is exactly right, as you will quickly discover when you visit “Brand-New and Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s,” now on view at the Neuberger Museum.
Katz, who turns 91 next month, is a preeminent American painter known for his portraits and spare compositions. Born in Brooklyn in 1927, he came of age during America’s mid-century love affair with Abstract Expressionist art. Think gestural painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, where a line — its thickness, speed, texture, depth of hue — asserts an emotion. Gesture was the name of the game and figurative, or representational, work was just not in vogue.
By the time he graduated from Cooper Union School of Art in lower Manhattan — the red-hot center of the international art world in 1949 — Katz had incorporated the ideas of his predecessors into his own art, which tended toward the figurative. According to curator Diana Tuite, of Colby College Museum of Art (where the exhibited originated), “Katz summarized his impatience with the 1950s status quo: ‘It just seemed that there should be a way to see a representational world in our time.’” She goes on to make an interesting point: “If Abstract Expressionism, then in a nascent second generation, positioned itself as a terminus of sorts, then the release from a march in that direction could be liberatory.”
Katz’s life-long connection to Maine began in 1949, when he was awarded a summer grant to attend Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture, and where he was encouraged to paint from life, <en plein air>. He returned the following year, eventually shifting his base to Lincolnville, on the coast near Camden. Maine provided Katz with much of his subject matter throughout this critical decade, when all his training and talent, ideas and experimentation, were melding as if tossed together into a crucible.
Katz refined his artistic vision throughout the 1950s, painting portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. Beginning in 1955, he began assembling small collages using scraps of paper painted with watercolor. These are the gems of the exhibit at the Neuberger. It is worth mentioning that he was impressed by Henri Matisse’s cut-outs, which were exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York City around 1949-50.
His first one-person show was held in New York City at the Roko Gallery in 1954; in 1956, he became a member of the Tanager Gallery’s prestigious artist cooperative on 10th Street. He was friends with figurative painters like Fairfield Porter and Jane Freilicher and photographer Rudy Burckhardt. In addition to Matisse, his influences included Edouard Manet and the Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. Katz often painted from vernacular photographs and did not attempt to mask his brushstrokes or drips on the canvas. There is a breeziness to his approach, which feels light-hearted, not precious or over-wrought. Big planes of color recall works by color field painters of the same era.
In 1959, Katz produced the first of his cut-outs, which are portraits painted in oil on canvas and affixed to wooden silhouettes. At that time, they were a unique amalgam of painting and sculpture that anticipated pop art. In this show, two full-length cut-out figures stand alone on pedestals, blending in with the gallery-goers. You will notice that each figure has a front and a back and it is fun to discover that the female wearing a bikini on one side is quite naked on the reverse.
The paintings and collages are hung chronologically, illustrating the gradual evolution of the young artist’s style. For those who do not know what it is like to toil away in an art studio somewhere, “Brand-New and Terrific” helps us to appreciate the tremendous effort that must go into building a body of work, giving us a glimmer of understanding that an artistic style cannot simply be summoned, it must be earned.
Alex Katz, <Bather>, 1959, oil on linen
Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by The Alex Katz Foundation, Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ‘66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisition Fund; Art c. Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.