What I learnt from Alex Katz
On first impressions, Alex Katz’s work appears to be about people and daily life. However, it doesn’t take long to realise that the subject matter is just the outermost boundary of the painting and Katz has a lot more on offer in his paintings. In 1973, Alex Katz had his first exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. At the same time, Abstract Expressionism was riding a wave of popularity in New York. Katz believed and trusted that what he was interested in was of substance and significance, even though it went against the grain. Katz focuses on ordinary, everyday life as a subject, but his paintings are anything but ordinary. The style, the present moment and formal qualities are the real focus of his work.
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Even though he received negative comments about his work from the likes of Clement Greenberg, Katz’s supreme confidence and clarity gave him the self-belief that his paintings could stand up against his peers. He took on the Abstract Expressionists with their large canvases, and he tried to knock them dead with the power of his images.
Katz’s paintings have a cinematic feel with bright, bold figures reminiscent of popular culture and commercial art. By focusing on ephemeral moments and every day on the surface of his paintings, Katz’s found the space to develop a highly stylised painting shorthand. By having his focus on the present, his work is always about the ‘now’. Meanwhile, other art movements came and went as the decades past.
The paintings are clearly figurative, but the spaces within the picture create abstract elements. Katz’s, by simplifying the shape and form of colour in his pictures created a type of grammar that is abstract. This grammar brings the composition together giving the paintings a spirit and energy.
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The surface of the painting is all done with a quick flick of his brush, allowing a vast canvas to be painted in under 5 hours. The brushwork is simple, creating an almost naive shorthand that is precise and unfussy. You can tell that Katz isn’t exaggerating about the 1000s of paintings he threw away in order to get the ‘big technique’ mastered.
The style of painting allows for the simplest of effort to get the detail correct. Using line and colour the whole comes together and takes centre stage. The painting’s colour and its intensity stand out over the detail. As Katz’s puts it, ‘the style is the content’. The outcome is a body of work that feels fresh and with vitality.
By understanding how Katz has removed the illusion of depth and focused on style and fashion and the light on the surface, I have learnt a lot about how Katz has a created an ever-changing image of the presence. In 1947 Adolph Gottlieb said, “The role of the artist has always been that of image-maker. Different times require different images…To my mind, certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time”. Katz’s paintings really have created the realism and the immediate presence of time. The ordinary is flat, but it has an intensity about it that is stimulating and sensational. Alex Katz’s has the right to be satisfied and self-assured, his work is always about the ‘now’.
Alex Katz; Coca-Cola Girls is currently on show at the Timothy Taylor Gallery in London until 21 December 2018.