American painter Alex Katz, admires David Hockney’s public graciousness and sense of self. Qualities that Katz in an interview with Martin Clark, artistic director of Tate St Ives for Tate Etc. magazine, the text reproduced in the Timothy Taylor Gallery’s elegantly-designed catalogue, reveals himself to possess by the bucketload. (See the Tate Shots live interview here)
What struck me in September 2010, when I first saw his work – yes, I know: how could I not have been aware of it before, when 2012 marks his 85th birthday, his paintings are in at least 98 public collections throughout the world, he has had countless solo exhibitions, globally, and been included in an endless series of mixed shows – stumbling across his National Portrait Gallery show, was its supreme stylishness. After all, here was an artists who had painted a huge close-up portrait of Anna Wintour – incidentally, the first portrait she has ever consented to sit for – without her, up until about then, omnipresent dark sunglasses. Although Katz admits to being interested in style and fashion I felt a sense of this portrait having being produced by a painter obsessed with neither: someone who knows all about style but is not of the style cogniscenti. During the interview, Katz tells Clark that to him ‘the surface is the whole thing’, however, as I’ve learned, there is nothing superficial about the processes he goes through and the history of the development of his approach to his paintings and subjects that could, in any way, be interpreted as shallow.
In my ignorance of who Katz was, my first impressions had been that here was someone who had seen Hockney, whose work at various stages has a similar, primitive feel about it – and had applied techniques possibly borrowed from illustration for his own purposes. I thought he might be British and perhaps one of the generation of the illustrator/artists who emerged, post-Hockney, from London’s Royal College of Art that included figurative draughtsnman Adrian George, brilliant colourist Glynn Boyd Hart (1948-2003) and maybe even Paul Leith. Instantly drawn to Katz’s work, I couldn’t have been more mistaken about its provenance.
In fact, Katz, whose parents were of Russian origin, and who grew up in Queen’s, emerged in 1950 from art school where he had produced detailed drawings of classical sculpture and painted from life, into a hysterical New York where the new heroes of abstract expression, Jackson Pollock and Barnet Newman, were throwing everything up in the air and riding a wave of popularity. Enjoying the parties and the jazz, Katz nevertheless had no inclination to err from the figurative direction he was set on that earned him an early popularity with the pop artists, who were just starting to appear. Instead Katz, who had nevertheless begun exploring the properties of flatness in representational painting turned to Mark Rothko and Yves Klein for inspiration and through the consequent reduction processes he applied to his own work, discovered a profound depth comparable to Pollock’s seemingly endless, multi-layered distance.
Alex Katz: Give Me Tomorrow is running until 23rd September at Tate St Ives, before transferring to Turner Contemporary in Margate in October, and shows a cross section of work spanning the artist’s six-decade career. Katz’s most recent, large-scale intimate portraits of family, friends and still lifes of flowers purchased from street vendors near his New York studio, are self-evident of the artist’s mastery of his medium. Seventeen of these have been selected for London’s Timothy Taylor Gallery show. In them can be detected traces of Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe and perhaps Andrew Wyeth, but Katz’s influences have often been strongly European: Picasso, Miro, Matisse – some of the same artists Hockney looked and may still look at – as well as earlier painters such as Watteau and Rembrandt, for gesture and composition. The big painting was an American idea, asserts Katz – perhaps unconsciously ignoring Monet’s great Waterliles triptych, measuring 2.1m x 13m (7ft x 42ft) in total, which had so inspired the New York abstract expressionists. Physically demanding for one so advanced in age, Katz’s works, though often huge in proportions – he was at the time of the Tate Etc. interview preparing to produce a 6.1m (20ft) wide, white on white, painting – are all done in a single day, all preparatory drawings and paint mixes having been finalised beforehand. His paintings could never be called impressionist but he likes to capture the immediate present, which this series of UK exhibitions are certainly doing for him.
Alex Katz paintings from top
White Roses 8 (large), 2012
All paintings © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, USA.
Courtesy, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London
Alex Katz photographed in 2004 by Vivien Bittencourt