Alex Katz has been delighting fans for over sixty years with his aloof portraits of glamorous figures and large-scale landscapes. At an impressive ninety-one years old, the art world star is still full of life and continues to work seven days a week with astonishing vigour. Throughout his career he has avoided becoming affiliated with any particular style and adamantly distanced himself from the work of many of his contemporaries, and while this has not impacted his success, it has left him seemingly cut off from the rest of the art world.
In a new book, Looking at Art with Alex Katz, which was released earlier this week by Laurence King Publishing, Katz discusses the work which has most deeply resonated with him, taking readers on a journey through art history. Described as a “private museum tour”, the book condenses Katz’s personal response and encounters with the works of 90 artists such as Henri Matisse, Leonardo da Vinci, and Edvard Munch into precise one-page paragraphs. Testament to his deep knowledge as well as his honest manner, the book provides fascinating insight into one of the world’s most adored living painters.
Katz’s graphic and deceptively modest artistic approach seems to contradict the historicism of the influences he holds most dear. Looking at Art with Alex Katz offers the artist the opportunity to demonstrate to readers his vast understanding of art history, but in an accessible manner that ultimately reflects the readability of his art and his humble upbringing to two Russian immigrants in Queens, New York. Encouraging the idea of looking beyond the contemporary for inspiration, Katz cites ancient Egyptian artist Thutmose as his favorite artist. “If I had to choose one artist, Thutmose would be the one,” he explains in the book as he recounts his experience visiting Thutmose’s Bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin.
This fascination with antique objects began at high school, when after originally intending to study advertising, Katz became consumed by drawing antique casts. Realizing he could “learn something,” the young artist would spend an entire week on one antique drawing, “involving two to three hours a day of intense looking.” After high school, he went to Cooper Union in New York and then to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. It was at Skowhegan that Katz was exposed to painting from life and landscapes, which drew him to the work of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. He became enthralled by how they “described forms in paint” and inspired by their work, began focusing on “the manner of painting as [his] subject matter.” It was also at Skowhegan that he was first introduced to the work of Jackson Pollock and the way he “spread light” through his drips of paint.
Katz’s signature flattened, figurative style was born out of his staunch rejection of Abstract Expressionism—the dominant movement in 1950s New York, where he began working after graduating. “I wanted to make something look new. I wanted to do a new visual art. It was a big ambition. And kind of stupid. I was in the abstract art world, socially—they all thought I was really stupid.” Among his contemporaries were Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, both of whom are included in Looking at Art with Alex Katz. While Katz admits that their abstract work impressed him during this period, he claims he always knew he was a better artist. “He has this intense drive and competitiveness,” his brother Vincent Katz once explained. “He sees what everybody else is doing, and his goal is to be on top.”
In the absence of inspiration from his contemporary artists, Katz turned to the poets of his generation and cites many as his primary influences. The New York School, which included poets such as John Ashbury, Joe Brainard, Ted Berrigan and Frank O’Hara, features prominently throughout the book. Admiring their “cool, fluid” style and their vernacular language, Katz sought to make art that reflected the New York School poets’ ability to emotionally and energetically depict the period in which they lived.
In the rest of Looking at Art, Katz deems Georges Seurat’s masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette a disappointment, calls Mark Rothko “decorative but beautiful, proficient and pompous,” and details his initial dissatisfaction with the Mona Lisa. The result is an extremely accessible book that mixes wider understandings of art history with the artist’s personal experiences. Formatted almost like a conversation, it reflects Katz’s absolute and unwavering belief in the rightness of his own opinion and his untiring competitiveness with the artists of his generation, most of whom he has outlived. In the face of the gimmicky modern art world that he now finds himself surrounded with, Katz maintains that he hopes to continue to engage people with his work and intends to keep painting at his typically astonishing rate. In the closing remarks of the book, Katz concludes: “Art doesn’t progress, it just changes, like fashion in clothes or music. There is no progress in art, only change.”
By Jess Harrison