On the occasion of the 85th birthday of Alex Katz (*1927 in Brooklyn, New York) the Essl Museum is showing Austria’s largest ever exhibition of the artist’s paintings. It will include more than 30 paintings, as well as draft drawings, preparatory oil sketches and “cartoons”. All of the artist’s major themes – society, friends and family, landscape – will be extensively covered in the show, which takes in a creative period of some 35 years. All works in the exhibition are owned by the Essl Collection.
Alex Katz developed his unmistakeable style in the midst of the dynamic New York art scene of the 50s and 60s. In 1949, just as he was finishing his degree, representatives of abstract expressionism such as Jackson Pollock were turning the New York art world on its head. Against the trend of the time, Alex Katz, however, decided on figurative painting. Influenced by elements of jazz and individual poets of the New York School, he wants to put a realistic subject into a concrete form. Coolness, technical virtuosity and the lyrical approach to everyday scenes are the starting points that Alex Katz also seeks to express in his paintings. A certain strictness paired with casualness is the aim. Katz endeavours to reduce his portrayals to the essential, primarily paints portraits, and so achieves the basic elements of the figure and the ground.
Like the representatives of pop art, in the early 60s Alex Katz is particularly interested in the forms of expression in film, television and advertising. Following the formats and directness of billboards and the wide-angle setting of the cinema, his paintings also become larger, he brings the faces of the people portrayed closer to the observer and frequently chooses radically cropped details for this. The powerful colours and the targeted placing of light reflexes strengthen the urgency of his paintings. Conditioned by the large format, Katz also develops a new painting technique. He experiments and it takes approximately ten years until, in the 70s, he discovers the right relationship between picture surface and ground. Still interested in fast painting, he now invests more time in the preparation. In a spontaneous painting technique, he does sketches, small oil paintings and pencil drawings in order to plan the final painting process better. The large composition is transferred to the canvas using a paper cartoon. The paints are pre-mixed and applied in a wet-on-wet technique.
From the mid-60s, group portraits are painted, showing intellectuals, artists and dancers, and Katz succeeds in capturing the atmosphere and glamour of the art scene. Party mood, leisure-time atmosphere, glamour and beauty are reflected in these pictures of friends, acquaintances, his family and his wife Ada. In the late 80s and 90s Alex Katz increasingly concentrates on large-format landscapes. Experienced, still actively painting, since then he has alternated between his chosen thematic fields. Alongside the paintings Alex Katz also completed an extensive range of graphic-arts works. For many artist colleagues Alex Katz is the forerunner of a new understanding of the portrayal of people and their surroundings. Francesco Clemente, Peter Halley, David Salle, Liam Gillick, Eberhard Havekost, Richard Prince and Luc Tuymans have also written articles about him, expressing their high regard.