“Brand-New and Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s,” a splendid survey show comprised of paintings, collages, and cutouts that opened this past weekend at the Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, Maine, could not be more aptly titled. Sixty-some years later, all the work still looks brand-new and terrific. As it was, these singular portraits, Maine landscapes, and uncluttered interiors never got their day in court.
Katz, for starters, went against the grain and painted small-sized, representational pictures on Masonite panels for much of the 1950s. Then there was the matter of his being inspired early on by someone like the French semi-abstract, semi-figurative artist Nicolas de Staël rather than the reigning heroes of the day, such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Clyfford Still, who executed wall-sized abstractions. Or, as the octogenarian artist put it the other day when his exhibition opened, “My paintings were totally unfashionable.”
Unlike his contemporaries from Queens and Brooklyn who got temporary jobs as counselors and lifeguards at summer camps in the Catskills, Katz, after studying at Cooper Union during the late 1940s, spent the summers of 1949 and 1950 at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He’s been returning Downeast ever since. Many of the works in the show were painted about 50 miles away in a place he rented on the coast in Lincolnville. Initially, Katz, who hails from St. Albans in Queens, was much taken by the opportunity to make direct paintings outdoors. The artist has suggested this was like “feeling lust for the first time.” These days, he also brings up the light in Maine. Katz told me, “It’s richer and has more color. As you go south, you get more light and less color.”
The group portraits that open “Brand-New and Terrific” are like pace cars at the start of a race. From the get go, you see Katz representing the world around him in a way that melds the specific with the universal. The featureless figures, some of which are based on found photographs, are rendered so that heads and torsos create a syncopated rhythm. Their not having delineated eyes, noses, and mouths was a conscious decision made by the artist. That’s clear when you look from an ink self-portrait from 1953 with lots of details to its painted and stripped down version, Seated Alex, hanging beside it.
Katz wasn’t interested in the big gesture or the sinuous line, and he preferred small to large. Consider his collages. These still lifes, landscapes, an interior, and a bather with sunglasses are practically miniatures. Though the native New Yorker admired Matisse’s cutouts, which can have a major presence from a distance, he draws you in close to view these mid-fifties works on watercolored paper.
As for rendering light, Katz’s confidence is evident in the many landscapes on view at Colby. You can watch the seasons change from summer to autumn to winter to spring. 10 AM and 4PM, two impressive paintings on linen from 1959, masterfully reveal how accomplished he became in this regard, as he was increasing the size of his work. The morning picture, which features a woman dressed in blue seated in a room with ochre walls, conveys anticipation and optimism for the day that is about to unfold. Yellow dominates the work depicting the afternoon hour. You feel the intensity and heat of the sun and want to cover the windows and turn on a fan.
The portraits of standing and seated friends against monochromatic grounds or in landscapes or interiors that Katz painted as the fifties closed could not be more compelling. The friends who posed seem more specific; the settings, more general. If you’ve ever seen photographs of artist Robert Rauschenberg or poet Frank O’Hara reproduced in books and catalogues, you’ll recognize them instantly.
Being at the opening of the show introduced another level of appreciation. Though more than fifty years have passed, when medieval art historian Lucy Sandler and critic Irving Sander stood by their double portrait from 1958 and Ada Katz was near the dozen paintings and cut-outs from 1958-59 on view that her husband made of her, you could see how the artist nailed their features with ease and just a few peripheral elements.
In ten short years, Alex Katz went from being an art student to a fledgling artist to a mature painter and collage and cutout maker. At a gala lunch, where the Colby College Museum of Art honored him with its Jette Award for Leadership in the Arts, Katz, who will be turning 88 on July 24, was dressed in an orange sherbet jacket, white pants, open collared striped shirt, and a grin from ear to ear. He looked brand-new and terrific.