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Alex Katz - It Figures

Words:

Edd Norval
March 4, 2022

If David Hockney were to take photographs of daily occurrences, you’d have an artist similar to Alex Katz, whose bold pop-py figurative works hone in on capturing ‘the now’ - a fleeting moment that holds no ties to the past, nor hints towards the future, but remain a symbolic image of the ephemerality of time.

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Katz is best known for his large pieces, opting for the representational when the trend was - during his breaking out period in 50s and 60s New York - tending towards the abstract. He was, in a sense, unfashionable to the art world’s elite. Dividing his time between a SoHo loft and a summer farmhouse in Maine, the painter worked tirelessly in trying to find a style that meant something to him - a marriage of urban and rural expression.


He found this, after destroying thousands of pieces, in paintings that eschew narrative in order to capture something completely transient - a brief moment never to be seen again. This can be both landscape and portrait, places or people. His work often takes on the perspective of a film director, with cuts that zoom into faces, framed like a still in an art house hit.


Influenced by the advertising billboards around the city, Katz emphasised his protagonist, promoting them like a postcard. Enthused with capturing everyday life, Katz quickly built up a reputation that led to numerous collaborations and commissions, portraying poets, artists and filmmakers in New York - looking on at the elites, without ever wanting to become one.

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Perpetually involved with the concept of ephemerality, Katz began to paint models in high-fashion, like Kate Moss and Christy Turlington, enthused not just by the figures, but the mere concept of fashion as an ever evolving discipline. Building on this concept comes one of the most consistent features of his work - the eyes. Sometimes closed, as if caught blinking, other times looking right at the audience, Katz manages to portray his muses candidly, naturally, unposed - sometimes unknowing, other times caught in the act.


Whilst most art begs to be deciphered, Katz opts for style over substance, far more taken by the possibilities of lighting, colour and character, than what narrative can be woven around his pieces. It’s this same attitude that sees Scottish artist Jack Vettriano divide the art world - yet loved by many, loathed by the few with a voice. The two could find solace in the beauty of their work.


This is an unfashionable way to exist in the art world, where tastes and prices are often dictated by post-rationalised commentary that audiences and buyers alike helplessly lap up. These people turn their noses up at Katz whose paintings have too often been brushed off as ‘easy’. Fitting in has never been an ambition and, luckily, hasn’t ever constrained his worldview.

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Not pop art, nor realism. Katz was taken by the technicalities of art, whatever that meant he belonged to, moreover than the dogmatic guidelines one must adhere to in order to be exhibited with XYZ in the city’s latest hot spot. Rather, he wanted to paint what he saw. Like Samuel Beckett’s poetry - he strove for the greatest economy of line and colour. That’s the thing with simple art, it never is.


Katz’ moments, that he dubs “quick things passing”, have defined his outlook and his work. He’s 94. Still active, still busy. His New York loft is filled with large paintings, a lot of them influenced by his wife, a recurring model and motif that, if compiled, would look like a scrapbook of the human process of ageing as viewed through the lens of an eternal admirer.


Live, alive, kinetic, melancholic. Katz paintings manage to capture a broad array of feelings and sensations, running the full gamut of emotions. His energy is boundless, unbroken and unbent by the rules of art, always standing apart, part of no scene, no movement, an honest painter, just painting what he sees.

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