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Photograph: © Vivien Bittencourt 2009

Alex Katz brings light and movement to Midtown

Katz’s public artwork on Park Avenue features his longtime muse—his wife Ada

Written by
Paul Laster

The consummate New York artist, Alex Katz, 92, was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Queens and studied art at The Cooper Union following World War II. He began his artistic career during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, a style he rebelled against with a form of realism that was informed by movies and advertising. But it wouldn’t be accurate to describe his work as Pop Art; rather it comprises smoothly stylized portraits (particularly of his wife Ada, Katz’s constant muse and frequent subject over 70 years) and landscapes (based, more often than not, on the area around his summer home in Maine). Katz’s work is regularly exhibited in all of the city’s major museums, and more recently, on the walls of the 57th Street subway station. And for the next few months, the Park Avenue malls between 52nd and 60th street will host a new outdoor installation by Katz organized by Kasmin in collaboration with Lococo Fine Art Publishers. Titled, Park Avenue Departure, the piece comprises a series of eight-foot high cutout figures of his wife Ada seen from the back. Recently, Katz, spoke about the piece, his approach to painting and the elastic nature of his wife’s image over the course of his lengthy career.

Photograph: Diego Flores, © Alex Katz/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), courtesy Kasmin Gallery

You’re almost the poster child for a certain kind of hugely successfully artist, one who seemed to rocket to art stardom with their first show—like the one you had in 1959 at Tanager Gallery on Tenth Street. Is that perception correct?
Not exactly. I had two previous shows that were total flops. But the show in 1959—well, while some people wouldn’t speak to me after I did it, others thought it was great. [Robert] Rauschenberg and [Jasper] Johns called me up about it. [Willem] De Koonig liked it, and so did some of the thinkers around the New York School, people like Edwin Denby, Rudy Burckhardt, Frank O’Hara and Jimmy Schuyler. And [Philip] Guston became a friend because of it. I thought, Oops, I guess I’m on my way.

Yet the work of many of those artists was more or less abstract, while yours was straightforwardly representational. How do you account for their enthusiasm?
I think it’s because of the fact that, while my paintings are realistic, my grammar comes out of abstract painting. I started with a more allover way of painting before changing to a figure and ground approach.

What was the New York art world like in the 1950s and ’60s?
The artists mostly controlled it, and the writers had some power, too. But during the ’60s, it changed drastically, when it became all about your selling work. Then the dealers began to have all of the power.

Photograph: Diego Flores, © Alex Katz/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), courtesy Kasmin Gallery

Didn’t you meet Ada, and paint her for the first time around that time?
Yes. I painted Ada for the first time when I met her in 1957.

She appears so frequently in your work. Why?
She’s the perfect model, great looking with a lot of style. She’s also malleable. She can do anything. She can be glamorous; she can be a housewife—anything at all.

How many times do you think you’ve painted her over the years?
Oh, I don’t know. I had an exhibition in Atlanta a few years ago and there were 250 paintings of her just in that one show.

Photograph: © Alex Katz/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY Courtesy of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise/LVMH Foundation

And now she’s the subject of Park Avenue Departure. She’s depicted from behind. I recall seeing a similar image in one of your recent paintings.
Yeah, that would be Figure In The Woods. But I’ve used that image since, repeating it again and again. You don’t run into something that good very often. That painting turned out to be one of the high points of my life.

What impact do you think your piece will have in a outdoor location like Park Avenue?
Conventional sculpture is about volume and mass; this work is about movement and light. It dematerializes the subject. There’s a novelty to it, which I think interests people. And then there’s the gesture—everyone can relate to it. It’s a very generic image of a person walking away.

Cutout figures, like the one of Ada, are something you’ve used regularly. But generally your work is distinguished by the way you crop imagery so that it resembles film or advertising. Is it fair to say that both have inspired your approach to painting?
Absolutely. I like how images are framed on billboards and especially on television, where the way imagery is cut can really throw the TV set into your lap. Cropping a picture gives it energy, and if you’re going to make figurative art, you’d better make something that looks like now.

Photograph: © Alex Katz/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Do you think of your work as having a narrative?
No, narratives unfold over time. I want to eliminate time, so that the impact of an image is instantaneous.

What’s your response to people who say your work looks like it’s easy to make?
Once you make a work of art public, anyone can say anything they want to say. Different people see different paintings differently.

Do you believe that you’re getting better with age?
No, not really. Maybe I’m just getting more proficient. I have more control over what I do. I take bigger risks now. But I’d be surprised if people thought my new paintings were any better than my early ones.

Alex Katz, Park Avenue Departure, is on view on Park Ave between 52nd and 60th Sts, through Nov 10 (

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