Self-described picture maker Alex Katz has been celebrating a creative life since his first dab of paint touched a canvas. Katz hit the New York gallery scene in 1954 with his first major solo exhibition at the Roko Gallery at age 27. Now 90, he’s still putting them out with his “Endless Summer” collection of recent prints and one early landscape painting at the Richard Levy Gallery. Since 1965 Katz has produced more than 400 print editions.
The nine prints and one painting in the current show exude panache, skillful execution and a love affair with both inner light and sunlight. With the exception of “Premium Point, 1976” an oil on canvas, Katz is offering new work from the past couple of years.
Katz’ signature style includes pure unmodulated color carefully applied to avoid any celebratory brush strokes. Taking cues from 1950s commercial illustration, including billboards and magazine fashion drawings, Katz was a Brooklyn-born and Queens-raised rebel on the streets of Manhattan when gestural abstract expressionism was the only show in town.
Katz studied at Cooper Union during the early days of abstract expressionism, from 1946 to ’49, but preferred painting portraits and figures. He moved to Maine in 1949 to study at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, where he discovered plein-air landscape painting. Since 1950, he has divided his time among figures, portraits, flowers and landscapes. Katz has been spending summers at his house in Maine and winters in his Manhattan loft since 1954.
“Endless Summer” is a wonderful cross section of Katz’s passion for elegantly rendered figures, lovely flowers and sensitive landscapes. Katz admits a fondness for paintings by Henri Matisse, whom Katz considers the most skillful painter in the history of Western art. Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro and English portraitist Thomas Lawrence all provide inspiration.
When I first saw Katz’s work in the early 1960s and heard him speak about painting, he seemed to be slotted in the pop art genre but with a softer palette. What I did not appreciate then was that Katz was an uncontrived progenitor of the pop movement. Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and others were followers of Katz who – like Bay Area painter David Park, who painted “Kids on Bikes” in 1950 – had stubbornly re-established the human figure many years before the abstract expressionist spell was broken by other artists.
Although Katz’s signature approach to image making is virtually unchanged over the past 67 years, its conscious banality is its power. His work celebrates life’s quietude and nature’s sun-dappled flora in a soft way like the butterfly emblemizes summertime. Katz has chosen to celebrate the joyful energy of life rather than the sadness of it.
His heroic scale portrait titled “Sasha, 2016” depicts a close-up of a beautiful young woman with blond hair, blue eyes and hot pink lipstick. She is smiling and, like Katz, is very happy to be alive. In “White Impatiens, 2016” Katz offers a 26-color silk-screen print in a riot of pink, red and white flowers diagonally cascading across the paper surrounded by variegated leaves.
In “Spring Flowers, 2017” Katz unleashes pure bliss with images of free-floating blooms dancing upon a pale background that amplifies the almost silent but elated insouciance.
This entire exhibition, which includes an auction print titled “Dog at Ducktrap,” a floppy eared longhair pooch with dangling tongue and a touch of frisky in a serene waterside scene, invites the viewer to visit with Katz as he lives his own endless summer. Since his birth in 1927, Katz has witnessed the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, all the while refusing to accept the hand-wringing angst found in much of other contemporary artists’ work. Katz is happily in love with his calling and is a wise guru for all of us.