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What Made Alex Katz So Brand New & Terrific?

The painter’s early 1950s work is the subject of an exceptional, worth-the-detour new show in Maine

Jeremy Sigler
July 29, 2015
Art © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Detail: Alex Katz, Apple Trees, 1954, oil on Masonite, 26 x 32 in. (66 x 81.3 cm). Collection of the artist. Art © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Art © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Detail: Alex Katz, Apple Trees, 1954, oil on Masonite, 26 x 32 in. (66 x 81.3 cm). Collection of the artist. Art © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

If you’re interested in postwar American art, I recommend that you visit Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and get lost in a well-curated exhibition of deceptively rigorous Alex Katz paintings from the artist’s formative decade, the 1950s. In this exhibition (and in the show’s exceptional catalog) you’ll witness how “a Katz” becomes “a Katz.” But more, you’ll get a lasting impression of Katz’s “company of muses”—the people and places the artist keeps in close proximity (just like his brushes, paints, stretcher bars, and canvas), who range from muse No. 1, his wife Ada, to a close-knit circle of poets, critics, and painters on whom he relies for fluid inspiration.

In the ’50s one can clearly see Katz’s modest beginnings, the unexpectedly fertile culture where his “style” was born. But style and fashionability can be misleading. What is truly manifest in early Katz is a certain grit, charm, economy, intensity, cunning, and, most importantly, attitude.

The show has a clear chronology. One can feel the pages of the calendar flipping forward from ’53 to ’54 to ’55, etc., as we witness the youthful spirit of a painter strike the balance of his own originality, in which the syntax, grammar, and vocabulary of his painterly language seem to intuitively add up. There was no Bauhaus or Black Mountain College, no pedagogical laboratory (discounting undergraduate art classes at Cooper Union and a summer in 1949 at Skowhegan). Katz, it seems, was “live” from day one, as his bold yet cautious development moves from one painting to the next. He seems to have been game, as they say, to bang out a painting, and keep on truckin’, on a loaded tank of surplus curiosity. To my mind, he succeeds, not by mastering his technical inadequacies, but by methodically removing all obstacles.

Even if white male mastery is no longer popular in the postmodern era—in a time of appropriation and pastiche—the curators have given us a convincing story of how Katz found his way in the early days. It’s a narrative that suits Katz for sure. And it suits us as well, suckers as we are for a coming-of-age story with a happy ending.

One of the first paintings in the show is a self-portrait of a tan Alex in an orange-and-black so-called “track jacket” worn over a red gingham button down. It’s as if he is greeting us with the Colby show’s title: This painting and its maker are “Brand New & Terrific!” But how terrific is terrific? Katz may be pretty [expletive] rad, but one thing is clear, the painter we have come to admire and think of as a master started off with so-so talent. We’ve adjusted our minds (and eyes) to think of a Katz as a mark of excellence if not genius, but back in the day they wouldn’t have seemed so impressive. A less courageous artist would have made more trips to the dumpster.

The press release boasts that Katz destroyed hundreds of paintings in these early experimental years. OK, fine. But if the earliest paintings from the ’50s—seen for the first time in this show—are the ones he held onto for all these years, I can’t image what the ones he threw away looked like. The earliest city scenes—two children standing on a sidewalk in front of a telephone pole somewhere in Queens, and a crowd of shoppers at an outdoor market—are downright sentimental.

While Katz clearly did not inherit or acquire (at Cooper Union) the painterly chops of a Sargent, Homer, or Eakins, he was dead set on standing out—by making paintings that were obnoxiously flat, audaciously generalized, faux amateurish, tauntingly naive, pathetically unmotivated, and did I mention slyly casual? Six decades later, the ’50s paintings reveal how much productivity came from a simple spark. Maybe it’s a lesson in American ambition and persistence, not to mention billboard-style branding. Katz, you could say, has more than sufficient stubborn confidence to hold his own in the face of a “tradition” that pounds most young painters into submissive derivative copycats.

Regardless of natural painterly ability, Katz has desire galore. By around 1955 he is a game-changer—an artist challenging existing notions of quality and entirely establishing a new set of rules. He has faith, you could say, in Modernism’s de-skilling—in Picasso’s aggressive un-perspectival monstrosities, in Matisse’s free-bird line, and in Pollock’s pissing everyone off. Katz, in other words, embraces the topsy-turvy thinking of the avant-garde, as much as any of the most radical painters of both Ab-Ex and Pop. He is dedicated to, as the poet Ezra Pound instructed, “making it new.” And yet it may be more logical to classify Katz as a fighter of the rear garde—feeling the heat of art history closing in, and devising an ambiguously quasi-conventional approach. Thus Katz is caught somewhere in the middle—looking forward and looking back.

Was Katz just in the right place at the right time? In retrospect, what naked mania drove this rebel Jew toward such unprecedented artistic achievement? What continues to drive Katz to be up there with Cézanne and Manet? Back in the ’50s, what voice inside the young Alex Katz was insisting that he was “brand new & terrific”?


Katz’s first few landscapes from circa 1953 show too many problems, and too little promise. They sing from across the room, like Corot’s earliest gems. But up close, one discovers a klutzy brush with little control. At this point, Katz is insufficient at filling in the canvas, rendering any detail whatsoever, closing up the gaps, pinning down the composition. His paintings are sketchy at best. No brush feels like the right brush. Scale is all out of whack. It’s as if Katz (and his brush) are either too big for a small canvas or too small for a big canvas. And he seems to be uncomfortable in the painting—anxious, in a way, to get it over with. Katz seems to want to reveal a clash of drawing and painting. But in his own nonchalant way, he opts to leave the surface visibly patchy, causing it to look undone, and even lazy.

But Katz always paints with serious intent, so words like “lazy” simply don’t apply. It is more empathetic and I think accurate to interpret Katz’s “klutzy brush” as a symptom of the Action Painting itch, of pints at the Cedar Tavern talking shop with Norman Bluhm or summer cocktails with Frank O’Hara chatting about Pollock. Within the next few years, in any case, Katz finds his scale; he gets comfortable in the body of the painting (big or small); finds a way to be abstract and representational at the same time; and confident handling a brush loaded with just the right consistency of paint. He decides to finesse the branches of a tree—to get it to open up into a canopy using one jerky gesture.

Clearly Katz—to his credit—is a fan of spontaneity (Jazz) and is opposed to waiting for paint to dry or going back into a painting to perfect something. He is fighting the good fight to keep the painting fast, and wet, and he is willing to lay color on top of color and let the painting get a little loose. He’s relaxed enough to let it slur into the “action” of a wet-on-wet medium without descending into muddiness.

How does he do this? Katz rids the painting of any fussy detail that threatens to bog down his brush, kill his color, or frustrate his cool nonchalance. He decides to use a kind of shorthand. His painting seems to ask, “Do you get the idea? Good, then I’ll move on to the next.”

Katz starts to speak his own language. To use a kind of limited vocabulary. To choose his words carefully. To articulate what he feels. To mean what he says. Rather than paint what he sees with his eyes wide open, he paints what he sees when he squints. The squint is thus another tool for reduction, another way to remove the obstacle of detail. By refining the task, he reduces the margin of error.

Quite possibly Katz teaches himself to generalize by completing a series of small collages. But the collages express much more. They remind us how many directions the philosophical Katz is being pulled in at once: He seems to want to bust out and paint big with Ab-Ex bravado; but he is also drawn to making precious little beach scenes the size of postcards. He wants to express action and rebellion but is also keen on sublime, almost Eastern tranquility (a person alone on a gray dock). He wants to expose the messiness of painting but also to dial-in his interlocking colors without fuss. He wants to paint with accurate local color and to nail down tonal relationships while toying with the implications of a perfumed palette.

In Katz’s first grayed-out group portraits from 1950, the figures are inchoate. He can’t bring his brush to paint a face. Each mark seems like an obliteration of a human being. The faces are indeed featureless. Are these forgotten people? Erased? Is Katz approximating the living or summing up the dead? Are these his ancestors?

But within a few years, in any case, Katz looks the other way and changes his palette: pinks, yellows, and greens emerge—pastels. And the dusty extended-family portrait will soon be replaced by Alex’s fresh “family,” the colorful personalities who are aboard his NYC/Maine bohemian set. He is ready to go out on a limb, and his first step “out,” so to speak, is into an unpopulated landscape. He now knows how to tenaciously scribble out an aggressive cluster of pine trees with one loaded brush. And to cut out a sweet beach-scape with a small cluster of figures off in the distance and the faded stripe of an island further off on the horizon. We focus on his lovely lubricated brush-work and convincing sense of luminosity and atmosphere.


But what about the perfume? Here is where we find the strong but menacing influence of Milton Avery—the under-recognized American painter from the previous generation who takes enormous liberties with color. Avery makes substitutions. A blue sky arbitrarily becomes lavender; a beach turns peach. Avery flirts hard with decoration.

On one hand, decoration is a calculated means to flip tradition on its head—to shrug off the formulaic umbers, ochres, shades of clay and cadmium green, as well as the obvious cobalt blue sky. But this is where Katz hunkers down in his own trench and fights a war on two fronts. For sure, he wants to embrace the decorative. He thus takes Milton Avery and wisely tones him down. Like Avery, he minimizes and tweaks shape and color, but at the same time, he gets gritty—he squints even harder and captures the contrasting values of the scenery and his model with pinpoint accuracy. Rather than waxing his own emotions through moody color, he sets out to objectively record what is in front of him—and to tell it as it is. Like a prose poem. (For another example of this sober realism sans the use of photography, see two of Katz’s closest allies, Fairfield Porter and Neil Welliver.)

Katz’s painting seems to ask, ‘Do you get the idea? Good, then I’ll move on to the next.’

And while exploring his own unique color-nerve, you could say Katz explores something effeminate, pushing the buttons of a homophobic public. But Katz balances his fruity side with blandness, and he settles in to what could be considered a bisexual artistic sensibility—especially given his “company of muses.” By the later part of the ’50s he paints numerous gay or bisexual poets, including Jimmy Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Edwin Denby, and Rudy Burckhardt (who were ambiguous lovers/best friends throughout most of their adult lives). Other than Ada, Katz seems to have had a preference for highly intelligent, elegant gay men. Macho as Katz is, he simultaneously cultivates an aesthetic with a touch of dandyism. And generations have had the choice of identifying with his queerness or his classical heterosexual romance.

Straight or gay, or both, the theme of “relationships” is even more paramount as Katz continues to paint portraits. Especially when he begins to set them in horizontally formatted canvasses, with similar proportions to movie screens. Paintings like Edith and Rudy (1957) remind me of John Cassavetes’ Faces, which didn’t come out until 1968. To me there is a strong affinity between these two artists, who both reflect on the struggle to nourish and fulfill our love lives and emotional/spiritual needs. By the late 1950s, Katz begins to embrace portraiture even more and to occupy his landscapes not only with literal figures but with their brooding, knowing psyches.

And here is where we see Katz mastering his talent for hiding his lack of talent. He is clearly working hard to remove anything from the painting that needs to be rendered in more than a couple quick brush marks and contrasting pigments. For example, he paints Ada in a blue overcoat and in so doing reduces her body to one big blue shape. In another picture he poses Ada with her hands behind her back. In another Ada is shown standing in the tall grass—where are her feet? In still another, he sticks Norman Bluhm inside an arbitrary big black circle that conveniently crops off one of his feet. In yet another divisive picture, he places the figure so far down in the composition that the bottom edge of the canvas awkwardly cuts off his legs at the ankles.

Indeed, Katz’s method seems to be: generalize. But how then do his paintings feel so accurate? So believable? So specific? How do his skies, lakes, horizons, trees, faces, and postures all seem so particular and familiar? You don’t feel like you can walk right into the painting, but you have this strange feeling that you’ve just walked out of it.

And Katz gives reassurance. In a few of his more iconographic paintings from the time, he paints the same figure twice, side by side, on one canvas. Two mirroring Rauschenbergs face each other in fold-out chairs. Two nearly identical Adas stand beside one another in blue overcoats. He’s not going for Campbell’s-soup-can serialism; he is merely reiterating himself, as if to say: “I’m gonna make it this way twice, just to show you that I intended it to be this way.”

This leads me to Katz’s greatest and most uncanny generalization: eyes. The sclerae of the eyes are never white. They are always the same color as the skin. Katz observes and paints them this way on purpose. This is how he gets them to penetrate. Katz’s figures, you could say, don’t have eyes—they have something far more complex: a human gaze, a human concentration, a human feeling. By nailing the tone of an eyeball, he gives his figures pathos. (Read the obituaries of Schuyler, Denby, and Burckhardt for more on the topic of pathos. Life for these men was not necessarily a breeze.)

Katz, you could say, accomplishes his “cool” by doing less than one would expect and achieving far more realism as a result. His irreverence gets driven in with earnestness. On my way out of the show I confronted the same self-portrait as on the way in: the young tan Katz in track jacket and gingham shirt. I could still hear Alex chattering: “My paintings are still ‘brand new,’ but the word ‘terrific’ is dated … it’s a swish colloquialism. I am using it on purpose … so that you’ll know that I’m really not too cool to let it all hang out.”


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Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, My Vibe, was published by Spoonbill Books.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.