AMY J. BARRY, Special to The Day
An exhibit of works by Alex Katz (b. 1927), postwar American artist and predecessor to the Pop Art movement, at the Yale School of Art 32 Edgewood Gallery offers lessons in simplicity and color and its resulting impact.
Katz is known for his large, bold paintings employing flatness of color and form and simple lines, inspired by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro.
The show comprises some 70 pieces that are all drawn from Katz's large, personal collection, some of which have rarely, if ever, been shown. It documents the Brooklyn-born artist's 60-year career as a painter, draftsman and printmaker.
Included are several of what Katz calls "cutouts," a technique he developed in the late 1950s in which he paints on cut wood or aluminum panels that stand freely like sculptures and can be viewed differently from both sides, but are actually compressed into planes more like paintings.
Among highlights of the exhibit are portraits of Katz's many famous artist and poet friends-Rudy Burckhardt, Yvonne Jacquette, Edwin Denby, Allan Ginsburg, George Ortman and Red Grooms-as well as recent portraits of family members and critics Brooks Adams and Lisa Liebman. Landscapes are inspired by views of New York City, where Katz lives in SoHo, and of Maine, where he spends several months of the year.
Robert Storr, dean of Yale School of Art and curator of the exhibit, says, "At 85, Alex Katz is, arguably, the freshest and most active of the New York School 'Old Masters.'"
Although never categorized as a Pop artist, Katz has been recognized in both the U.S. and Europe as a rival of Andy Warhol for his observant, highly stylized, and exquisitely executed depictions of American people, manners and mores.
But, while his iconic, bigger-than-life-sized paintings remind viewers of Warhol's celebrity portraits, Storr points out that Katz's style has always been more identifiable with the painterly realism of such contemporaries as Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher and Philip Pearlstein. And at the same time, "his daring explorations of gesture and scale ally him with abstract artists of the 1950s and '60s, such as Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Ellsworth Kelly."
Storr is thrilled to have an exhibition of Katz's work in the Yale School of Art gallery.
"Alex taught here in the '60s. A lot of young artists have him on their minds: the coolness, American-ness, deliberate stylization of his work," he says. "He's the epitome of a New York artist."
Referring to the gallery space, Storr notes, "We wanted to account for his whole career in a very economic way-from 1949 to the present-in all media."
Katz's process is to spend the majority of his time in the pre-painting stage, and then actually paint canvases 12 feet wide by seven feet high-or even larger-in a six- or seven-hour session.
"He works out very carefully in advance and when he paints, it's rather quickly," Storr says. "Like a performance, a jazz musician, he develops a theme spontaneously.
"He's still totally active, painting three to five paintings a year on a grand scale," Storr adds, "and doing lots of other (work), too."
The idea of the exhibit, Storr says, "is to show students how to get from A to Z…How to have a long life in art."