In Close Up

The Guggenheim Museum has given almost its entire gallery space to a tremendously satisfying retrospective of artist Alex Katz. Alex Katz: Gathering honors and explores a prolific career through works beginning in the mid-1950’s to present day pieces that resonate just as strongly. And at 95 years of age, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Subway sketches from the mid 1940's.

A quintessential New Yorker, Alex Katz was born in Brooklyn in 1927. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Queens, where he spent his childhood. In the late 1940’s he studied at the renowned Cooper Union and from there went on to further his education at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. While at Skowhegan, he was introduced to painting from life and this exposure to plein air painting would influence his artistry in the decades to come and he remains true to the technique today.

Lake Time, Oil on Board, 1955

Mr. Katz developed a unique form of portraiture—flat images whose subjects are immediately relatable (and in many cases recognizable) through bold composition, specificity of brush strokes, intense coloring and attention to light, placing the subject in a close-up that gives the viewer a cinematic sense of the person. His proportions invite the viewer into the painting and reveal an essence that might otherwise be missed with some distance.

Track Jacket, Oil on Board, 1956
Alex Katz's great love and muse is his wife, Ada, who has been a willing model for decades. Here, The Red Smile, Oil on Linen, 1963.
Alex Katz also painted his son Vincent and in this piece included Vincent's close friend Antony Seabrooks. Here, Vincent and Tony, Oil on Linen, 1969.

His paintings simultaneously convey a world with no narrative, reduced to the few core elements needed to portray a subject and context is not required nor needed. It is in this reduction that the viewer can attach their own thoughts and feelings into the work and thereby become enmeshed in it.

He accomplishes the same dramatic intent even with subjects from the natural world or a monolithic office building—magnifying the object so that it becomes larger than life but also more urgently approachable.

The 1980’s saw his zenith of popularity, where his style was appreciated for its value to advertising and graphic design when clean, bold, colorful and striking depictions were in vogue.

In the late 1980's Alex Katz began to paint the city at night. These paintings, simple in their composition, belie their power to impress with their enormous scale and realistic effect. Here, West 2, Oil on Linen, 1998.
In the 1990's, Alex Katz began to institute what he called "splits," wherein a duplicated portion of the subject is cut off from the viewer's perception by an implied edge. Here, Ada Ada, Oil on Linen, 1991.

The Guggenheim is an ideal venue for the pieces on display as they demand both up-close attention and viewing from a great distance. Scanning across the floors of the spiral galleries, the pieces are just as exciting, even when they are on a lower floor and not at eye level. They are each impressively distinct and hold your attention.

Round Hill, Oil on Linen, 1977

In addition to the paintings, there are a small number of prints (Mr. Katz began printmaking in 1965), a collection of delightful wooden sculptures painted on both sides and some charming paper collages depicting various outdoor activities. These miniature vignettes are absolutely charming in their whimsy and construction. 


A paper collage of a day at the beach.

While Mr. Katz is most notable for his contribution to the mid-century “Pop Art” movement, his steady style development, the maintenance of his core principles and a continual fascination with the world around him, transcends his roots. The current pieces are just as vibrant and captivating as the older ones. His pieces don’t age nor do they date him. They remain in the present and are as fresh and alluring as their debut, pulsating with the energy of the here and now—the immediate moment of their subject’s capture by the eye of the artist.

Alex Katz: Gathering is on view through February 20.

Blue Tree 2, Oil on Linen, 2020