At 88, Alex Katz is still chas­ing his artis­tic vi­sion — and recog­ni­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GE­OFF EDGERS

The artist, scythe in hand, slashes at over­grown bam­boo in front of a clunky yel­low house fit for an An­drew Wyeth paint­ing. This is not a per­for­mance piece. This is Alex Katz, 88, ar­riv­ing in Maine for another sum­mer by Coleman Pond, another sum­mer of work.

He does not spend much time re­lax­ing. Take the re­cent Sun­day that he and his wife, Ada, made their an­nual mi­gra­tion from SoHo, a seven-hour drive in their BMW Z4. It was rain­ing, but Katz wasn’t about to curl up on the sofa with a cup of chamomile. Be­fore dark, he walked from the yel­low house, down a grassy path and into his airy post-and-beam stu­dio. He taped to­gether sec­tions of rolled­out brown pa­per un­til a piece stretched seven feet long and tacked it to the wall.

“What are you go­ing to do when it rains?” says Katz, in white ten­nis hat, T-shirt and blue jeans with a rip in one knee. “I said, ‘Let’s get the stu­dio go­ing.’ ”

This is, in so many ways, the sum­mer of Alex Katz. In At­lanta, an ex­hi­bi­tion at the High Mu­seum of Art fo­cuses on his land­scapes. In New York, Katz’s fa­mil­iar fig­ures stretch across the win­dows of Bar­ney’s depart­ment store, and dozens of spe­cially de­signed prod­ucts are for sale. And in

Water­ville, Maine, at the Colby Col­lege Mu­seum of Art, the artist’s for­ma­tive work is fea­tured in an eye-open­ing ret­ro­spec­tive, “Brand New & Ter­rific: Alex Katz in the 1950s.”

You might think the artist could re­lax, take out the ca­noe or sip an Old-Fash­ioned in an Adiron­dack chair. But he’s got that brown pa­per on which he’s sketch­ing out six ver­sions of his daugh­ter-in-law, Vivien. He’s got other work un­der­way, and if you prod just a bit, a com­plaint or two as well. Katz won­ders why no Amer­i­can mu­seum has picked up the High Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion. It will travel to Spain and Ger­many in­stead.

“It’s the best show I ever made,” he says, be­fore be­ing asked whether, even with all these suc­cesses, he’s un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated.

“I’m not where I think I should be in the world.”

Which is not to say that Katz is a grum­bler. As he ap­proaches 90, he is a dy­namic con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist, gallery hopper, men­tor, critic and fam­ily man. And he is, as much as any­thing, a work­ing artist. Ev­ery morn­ing, Katz does 300 push-ups, 200 sit-ups and a litany of stretches be­fore head­ing to his stu­dio. He doesn’t seem to be rac­ing mor­tal­ity so much as try­ing to chase his imag­i­na­tion.

“Look, I did this thing with these six fig­ures,” Katz says, mo­tion­ing to the wall and the mul­ti­ple sketches of Vivien, “and I want to see what it looks like. I’m work­ing more now than I ever did in my life, and I can’t think of any­thing more in­ter­est­ing to do than come home and work on this thing, which I don’t know what it will end up do­ing.”

As he speaks, sun floods into the stu­dio, which he had built in the 1980s. It is im­mac­u­late and smells of moist wood. The Katz sum­mer home, in con­trast, has low ceil­ings and some of the same fea­tures it had when he and his first wife, Jean Co­hen, pur­chased it in 1954. That mar­riage didn’t last, but his union with Ada, the sub­ject of more than 250 of his works, be­gan when they met in 1957. They were mar­ried in 1958, the same year she first came to Maine.

“The light in here is re­ally great,” he says, “and it’s great to be around the trees. When I’m paint­ing, I’m out­doors.”

The area it­self is also a spir­i­tual fit. Make no mis­take about it. Katz is as New York as a Coney Is­land hot dog, the son of Rus­sian im­mi­grants who grew up in Queens. But this sec­tion of Maine is his per­fect sum­mer home. It’s a short drive from ritzier Cam­den, with its pic­turesque store­fronts and in­flux of wealthy va­ca­tion­ers. The cou­ple can easily go into town for din­ner or a cup of cof­fee. They can also stay here and slip into the back­ground.

“I ran into a plumber I hadn’t seen for 20 years, and the plumber says to me, ‘ Alex, you still paint­ing?’ ” he says with a laugh. “And I said, ‘I try to keep my hand in it.’ ”

Katz is most fa­mous for his por­traits. They are color-splashed can­vases of gar­den-party scenes and beach out­ings and freeze-framed men and women, sad-eyed or mys­te­ri­ous or half-smil­ing, crowd­ing out blank space. The im­ages are so bold, so alive and so de­ceiv­ingly sim­ple, you half ex­pect a thought bub­ble to pop up with a zinger from Elaine May. That’s the Katz who gets lumped in with pop artists. Then there is the other artist. The one who paints trees, houses, build­ings, flow­ers and ta­bles. The Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York holds one of his most beau­ti­fully sub­tle works, “Win­ter Scene,” a gray­ish field of bare trees.

“He’s been mis­un­der­stood from the be­gin­ning,” says Michael Rooks, the cu­ra­tor of Katz’s show at the High Mu­seum, “This Is Now.” “He was never a pop artist. He was a re­al­ist go­ing against the grain and pro­vok­ing his peers into mak­ing fig­u­ra­tive paint­ings and do­ing it un­apolo­get­i­cally.”

Is this why Katz’s works sell for so much less than those of many of his peers? Jasper Johns’s and James Rosen­quist’s go for mil­lions, as do works by younger pain­ters such as Peter Doig. Last year, the Art Mar­ket Mon­i­tor an­a­lyzed auc­tion sales data for an ar­ti­cle ti­tled “The Mys­tery of Alex Katz’s Mar­ket,” won­der­ing why his works sell for, on av­er­age, $100,000.

Katz thinks buy­ers may not ac­cept his land­scape work as read­ily as they do his por­traits. He also won­ders whether his blunt man­ner— he just can’t of­fer faint praise when he doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate another artist’s work — may have held him back. Still, as his artist friend David Salle of­fers, per­haps there is another an­swer: None of the above.

“One must al­ways re­mem­ber, there is no cor­re­la­tion be­tween qual­ity, im­por­tance and the art mar­ket,” Salle says. “The art mar­ket might think there is, but it re­ally makes very lit­tle sense.”

The Colby show, which runs through Oc­to­ber, fol­lows the work done dur­ing a for­ma­tive decade. Katz was wide open, play­ing with color, space and sub­ject­mat­ter, and about as un­fash­ion­able as an artist could be. Re­al­ists won­dered why he wouldn’t fin­ish the can­vas. Mod­erns thought him old-fash­ioned. Just con­sider a short ar­ti­cle in Art In­ter­na­tional from 1960. In call­ing Katz a fig­ure pain­ter, the piece de­scribes that as “the most bor­ing of all types of paint­ing.”

That didn’t stop Katz. Af­ter study­ing at Cooper Union in New York, he came to Maine to study at the Skowhegan School of Paint­ing and Sculp­ture. In the ’50s, even as he got to know such lu­mi­nar­ies as Johns, Willem de Koon­ing, Robert Rauschen­berg and Andy Warhol, Katz ex­plored his own style. Milton Avery meets Cezanne, re­viewer af­ter re­viewer wrote. In other words, in a uni­verse of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists, work per­ceived as out of sync.

“When my wife met me,” says Katz, “she said, ‘I thought ev­ery in­tel­li­gent pain­ter would be paint­ing ab­stracts. What are you do­ing paint­ing fig­u­ra­tives?’ I was try­ing to make some­thing that was new and re­al­is­tic. I didn’t know if it was pos­si­ble, but I kept search­ing.”

“It’s one of the ster­ling ex­am­ples of some­one go­ing their own way and know­ing in their heart and mind that it’s the right way and will be per­ceived that in time,” Salle says.

Diana Tuite, the Colby cu­ra­tor who pre­pared the ex­hi­bi­tion, re­searched and read the pans from the 1950s.

“Work­ing on this show, I’ve come to re­al­ize how in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult it would have been for some­one as young as he was to stake his ground and not budge,” she says.

The Colby show fea­tures much of that work, in­clud­ing Katz’s cutouts— fig­ures painted on wood— and a sur­real dou­ble por­trait of Rauschen­berg. Many of the paint­ings are likely to sur­prise those more fa­mil­iar with his por­traits: The smol­der­ing or­ange of “Ives Field (1956),” the bright, Im­pres­sion­is­tic dashes of “Gold­en­rod (1955)” and “Flow­ers (1953).” Then there is the ques­tion of how many works are not here.

Katz talks of hav­ing de­stroyed thou­sands of can­vases from that time. But much does sur­vive. Tuite sifted through Katz’s stor­age area in New York, se­cured loans from mu­se­ums and tracked down works in pri­vate homes, some of which are rarely, if ever, seen in public.

Colby, about an hour’s drive from Lin­col­nville, was a nat­u­ral for the ex­hibit. In 1992, Katz do­nated hun­dreds of his works to the col­lege mu­seum, and, four years later, a wing de­voted to his work opened. Here, you can also see how Katz sup­ports other artists. His non­profit foun­da­tion, run by his son, Vin­cent, has placed 385 pieces in mu­se­ums, rang­ing from such big names as Chuck Close and David Smith to younger artists.

What’s no­table is that Katz, in choos­ing works, doesn’t ad­here to a spe­cific style. Take Ann Pibal, whose col­or­ful ab­stracts are de­fined by lines, shapes and pat­terns on alu­minum pan­els. She has work, given by the foun­da­tion, hang­ing at Colby.

“His un­der­stand­ing of art is so in­clu­sive and so­phis­ti­cated, so the range of works he has col­lected don’t nec­es­sar­ily sup­port a par­tic­u­lar the­sis or van­tage point,” says Pibal, 46. “He’s sup­port­ing good paint­ing.”

In the barn con­nected to the yel­low house, Katz rubs a kerosene-and-oil-soaked rag on his scythe. That keeps it from rust­ing. He hangs it up and takes the short walk over to the stu­dio.

Katz does not fake it. If he loves an artist, mu­si­cian or writer— say Matisse, Rosen­quist, Stan Getz, Eve Hesse or Ed­win Denby — su­perla­tives flow.

If he’s not moved, he doesn’t of­fer false praise. Ask him about Mark Brad­ford, for ex­am­ple, per­haps the most talked-about con­tem­po­rary artist in re­cent years, and he shrugs.

“It’s com­pe­tent, very nice dec­o­ra­tive paint­ing, but it just doesn’t in­ter­est me.”

There is one artist Katz seems par­tic­u­larly com­fort­able cri­tiquing. That would be him­self.

He sifts through the Colby cat­a­logue and of­fers judg­ments, quick takes with lit­tle re­gard for the artist’s feel­ings.

Of a self-por­trait from 1953: “I didn’t care for this much. But other peo­ple like it. I don’t know. I thought it was okay. A lit­tle dec­o­ra­tive.”

Of a woman with a cat: “This one I was never crazy about. Why, I don’t know.” But there are gems. The win­ter scene from MoMA is “the best pic­ture of the time” and a 1959 por­trait of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist Nor­man Bluhm is “a per­fect pic­ture.”

Vin­cent Katz, his son, says his fa­ther’s un­flinch­ing take, his un­will­ing­ness to em­brace his own suc­cess, is what drives him.

“That hon­estly drives all suc­cess­ful peo­ple and all suc­cess­ful artists,” he says. “He says he still wants a show at MoMA. We turn around and say, ‘You’ve had amaz­ing things at this mu­seum or that mu­seum. Look what’s hap­pen­ing right now.’ But it does bother him. I’m al­ways say­ing, ‘Why don’t you take some time to smell the roses?’ He’s smelling the cof­fee in­stead. He wants to get out there and start hit­ting again.”


Alex Katz in the stu­dio next to his sum­mer home in Lin­col­nville, Maine. “I’m not where I think I should be in the world,” he says.


Alex Katz stud­ies sketches of his daugh­ter-in-law, Vivien, in his stu­dio in Lin­col­nville, Maine. “Look, I did this thing with these six fig­ures,” he says, “and I want to see what it looks like. I’m work­ing more now than I ever did in my life, and I can’t think of any­thing more in­ter­est­ing to do than come home and work on this thing, which I don’t know what it will end up do­ing.”


“4:30 PM,” a 2007 oil on linen, will be part of the “This Is Now” ex­hibit at At­lanta’s HighMu­seum. Maine’s woods and wa­ters have inspired many of Katz’s land­scapes. “When I’m paint­ing, I’m out­doors,” he says of his stu­dio.


“Ada,” a 1959 oil-on-board por­trait of Katz’s wife, will be part of “Brand-New & Ter­rific,” a show at the Colby Col­legeMu­seum of Art that ex­plores a for­ma­tive pe­riod for the artist.



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