Katz, Alex

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KATZ, ALEX (1927– ), U.S. painter, sculptor, and printmaker. Katz primarily painted in the traditional mode of portraiture, often eschewing perspective and the psychological interpretation of his models, while flattening bright colors. Born in Brooklyn to newly immigrated parents from Eastern Europe, Katz joined the Navy a month before the end of World War ii. After a year in the Pacific he returned home and began his art studies, initially at the Cooper Union Art School (1946–49) training to be a commercial artist. This early exposure to the style of billboards, magazine advertisements, and comic strips would affect his later artistic production. Katz decided to focus on the fine arts in his last year, at which time he studied with, among others, the Jewish painter Morris Kantor. He also took summer art classes at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine (1949, 1950), honing his skills and his interest in working from nature. During 1950–51 Katz painted many landscapes in a loose, sketchy style encouraged by Jackson Pollock's allover canvases.

In the late 1950s Katz began painting his wife, Ada, as he started to develop his mature style and to discover his overriding interest in portraiture. The following year he also made his first cut-outs – freestanding, double-sided figures painted on aluminum or wood. By the early 1960s Katz's canonical style of large-scale, cropped portraits painted with sharp, crisp contours and employing strident colors began to evolve (e.g., The Red Smile, 1963, Whitney Museum of American Art). Painted with thinned-out oil paint, Katz explored form and color much as the Fauvist Henri Matisse did in the earlier part of the century. Unlike social realist painters of a generation earlier – including Raphael, Moses, and Isaac *Soyer – who emphasized their humanist intentions, Katz repeatedly asserts that these works and others are more about style than content.

While continuing to paint portraits, Katz also made a series of enlarged flower paintings that press to the front of the picture plane, filling up the canvas (1966–67). Beginning in 1960, Katz designed sets and costumes for choreographer Paul Taylor's dance performances in addition to sets for other productions. His set for Kenneth Koch's off-Broadway play George Washington Crossing the Delaware incorporated around 20 almost life-size wood cutouts, including Washington in his rowboat, army officers, and props such as a cherry tree all rendered in Katz's straightforward style. Starting in 1965, Katz began making prints, some of which were executed as illustrations for published books of poetry by leading writers such as John Ashbery.

Over the years Katz experimented with including background details omitted in earlier canvas portraits, painting group portraits often of family and friends in social situations, and landscapes.


N.P. Maravell, Alex Katz: The Complete Prints (1983); R. Marshall, Alex Katz (1986); S. Hunter, Alex Katz (1992); I. Sandler, Alex Katz: A Retrospective (1998).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]