Alex Katz: Gathering
On view through February 20, 2023
“Eternity exists in minutes of absolute awareness. Painting, when successful, seems to be a synthetic reflection of this condition.”
These words from
Alex Katz are an apt description of the artist’s oeuvre filling the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum. Katz’s eight-decade retrospective features paintings, oil sketches, collages, prints, and freestanding “cutout” works.
Ada and Alex photographed by Jill Krementz on May 20, 1988.
In addition to landscapes, trees, flowers, and even subways, the exhibition features Katz’s downtown community of friends:
Frank O’Hara, Robert Rauschenberg, Allen Ginsberg, Rudy Burckhardt, Paul Taylor, LeRoi Jones (later Amira Baraka), John Ashbery, Edwin Denby, D.D. Ryan, Bill T. Jones, and Joan Jonas.
Predominant among the portraits is his wife (and muse)
Ada Katz along with other family members — his mother Sima Katz, his son Vincent Katz (poet and translator), his daughter-in-law Vivien Bittencourt (Brazilian filmmaker), and his twin grandsons Isaac and Oliver.
The exhibition has been curated by
Artist Alex Katz briefly attended his opening night wearing a white suit and a yellow tie. You can see one of the many paintings of Katz’s wife Ada in the background. Sadly she was not able to attend her husband’s opening.
Katherine Brinson, Curator of the retrospective, with Richard Armstrong, the Guggenheim’s Director.
Ella Marion in Red Sweater, 1946 This tender portrait depicts the artist’s mother, Sima Katz, who was born to a Jewish family in an area of present-day Poland that was then part of Russia. Sima studied acting in Odessa before immigrating to New York City in 1918. There, she became a star of the Yiddish theater on the Lower East Side, assuming the stage name Ella Marion.
Untitled, ca. 1946-1949, from Subway Series, pen on paper Katz found a favorite observational subject on his daily commute from St. Albans to his school in the East Village. Just as it does today, the subway brought together a broad cross-section of society, and he was fascinated by the theater of the transient crowd.
Left: Track Jacket, 1956 The title of this self-portrait calls the viewer’s attention to an emblematic item of clothing rather than the identity of the sitter. Katz depicts himself not in the traditional guise of the tortured or cultivated artist but rather as what he terms “a social image” of a young man decked out in the new genre of casual sportswear as a style statement. Right: Ada in Black Sweater, 1957 Katz met Ada Del Moro at a party in late 1957, and three months later, they were married. Born in 1928 in the Bronx to first-generation Italian immigrants, Ada received her master’s degree in biology from New York University in 1955, followed by a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Milan.
Eli at Ducktrap, 1958 Architect and teacher Eli King, who is the son of artist Lois Dodd, grew up spending summers in Maine with the Katz family. Here, he is shown standing in the rigid frontal stance of ancient Greek kouros sculptures, diminutive against an expanse of ocean.
Ada Ada, 1959
Frank O’Hara, 1959–60 Oil on wood panel Visionary poet, critic, and curator, Frank O’Hara was at the center of the poets and artists who made up the so-called New York School in the 1950s and ’60s. Katz has stated, “He’s the poet of my time.” One of the artist’s earliest “cutouts,” Katz cut this portrait from the canvas and fastened it to a section of wood, which he then shaped to the contours of the painted form.
Paul Taylor, 1959 Paul Taylor was an influential choreographer and dancer, whose notable collaborators included Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and George Balanchine. Taylor founded his own company in 1955, and five years later began what would become a decades-long, intensely generative partnership with Katz on sets and costumes for some of his most innovative stage works. In this canvas, Taylor’s pose is derived from the eighteenth-century painter Jean-Antoine Watteau’s work Pierrot.
Bill 3, 2017 The politically charged work of renowned choreographer, dancer, writer, and director Bill T. Jones has been a beacon in the field of contemporary dance since the 1970s. Here, two versions of Jones enveloped by yellow paint peer with a penetrating gaze.
The Black Dress, 1960 Dressed in an impeccable black cocktail dress that is a marker of urbane sophistication, Ada is multiplied six times across the canvas. In one of her poses, she gazes at a 1959 portrait by Katz of the poet James Schuyler, which is itself doubled in its reproduction within this new painting. Unlike the deconstructions of Cubism, in which a static object is represented through multiple viewpoints, Ada assumes varied poses, as if different moments are being captured simultaneously.
The Red Smile, 1963 In the 1960s, Katz began playing with exaggerated scale in his work, simultaneously distilling and amplifying his subjects. This was inspired in part by his fascination with the visual strategies used in advertising billboards: “I love the scale of billboards, the romance of billboards, and the bluntness of them,” he declared in 1963. In this painting of the same year, Ada’s profile is rendered against an insistently flat field of bright red. Her dazzling smile demands our attention as her face fills the frame.
Upside Down Ada, 1965
October 2, 1962 The mundane scene shown in October 2 — a rumpled single bed in front of a window in the artist’s home— becomes the premise for a composition of intersecting gray planes and a painterly analysis of the way soft morning light suffuses a space. For a year spanning 1962 to 1963, Katz painted the shifting light and weather viewed from his windows in the city and the country, each titled after the day’s date.
Jack and D. D. Ryan, 1968 Oil on aluminum
Edwin and Rudy, 1968 Oil on aluminum Katz’s creative approach was deeply inflected by his friendships with the photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt and the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby. Burckhardt’s and Denby’s lives were closely intertwined. They met in 1934 in Switzerland, and the following year moved to New York, where they lived together until Burckhardt’s marriage to the painter Edith Schloss in 1946. The two men remained in intimate dialogue until Denby’s death in 1983.
Dogwood, 2013 While walking in Washington Square Park in 2013, he encountered a mass of blossoming dogwood trees, and promptly retrieved his painting materials from his studio in order to sketch the encounter from life.
L. to r.: Superb Lilies, 1972; Blue Flag 4, 1967 Flowers have long played a role in the still-life tradition as symbols of both beauty and mortality.When Katz turned his attention to a series of flower paintings in the mid-1960s, he depicted them in feverish close-ups, filling the viewer’s field of vision with forms that are unfamiliar and at times almost abstract.
Scott and John, 1966 In Scott and John, the doubling that Katz at times applies to a single sitter is achieved with two different individuals. It depicts a couple who lived near Katz’s loft: the realist painter John Button and the sculptor and critic Scott Burton.
Passing, 1962–63 In this self-portrait, Katz coolly returns the viewer’s gaze, dressed in a trilby and sharply tailored suit. The early 1960s was a time of accelerated cultural change, and having been raised by immigrants attempting to assimilate to U.S. culture, Katz had long been interested in the instability of identity.
David and John, 1977 This painting depicts John Ashbery — one of the most influential poets of the postwar United States— and his partner (later husband) David Kermani. Katz and Ashbery created two collaborative publications, in 1969 and 2005, in which poems by Ashbery were paired with images by Katz. The couple are pictured in the light-dappled living room of their Chelsea home.
LeRoi Jones, 1963 This work portrays Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) — a poet, critic, playwright, and political activist of sweeping influence, and a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. At the time of this portrait, he was closely involved with the downtown circle of Frank O’Hara, who introduced him to Katz.
Allen Ginsberg, 1985 Oil on aluminum, six parts This fragmentary portrait of poet Allen Ginsberg features six separate cutouts of various segments and angles of the sitter’s face.
Left: Ada and Vincent, 1967 In 1960, Alex and Ada welcomed their only child, Vincent, pictured as a seven-year-old in this painting. Today, Vincent is a poet and translator, who has been a frequent collaborator with his father on poetry projects and artist’s books. Right: Rose Bud, 1967
On the wall: Ada with Mirror, 1969 Right: Ada with Nose, 1969-1970 Oil on aluminum
Tree, 2019 In 2019 and 2020, Katz painted a series of single trees that achieve an elemental legibility of form. These works foreground Katz’s characteristic attention to atmospheric shifts, as the trees, which are depicted frontally against bright, monochromatic skies, enact a turning of the seasons that is traditionally metaphoric of the human life cycle.
Blue Tree 2, 2020
Yellow Tree 1, 2020 The dancing passages of brown foliage against a blazing mass of yellow seem to radiate outward from the canvas, fulfilling Katz’s painterly ambition to “compress everything into a single burst of energy.” This painting appears on the cover of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.
Ada’s Black Sandals, 1987
Snow Scene 2, 2014
Blue Umbrella 2, 1972 Once again, Alex Katz depicts Ada Katz, his most iconic subject. In this painting, she assumes the remote glamour of a mid-century film star, protectively encircled by both the umbrella and a silk headscarf, as rain spills around her in stylized tear-drop forms.
Alex and Vincent Katz.
Karen Koch, Vincent Katz, Wayne Koestenbaum (who wrote an essay for the catalogue), and Katherine Brinson (who curated the exhibition).
Left: Performance artist Joan Jonas, a pioneer of performance and video art since the 1960s. Right: Joan 2, 2020; the portrait of her included in the exhibition.
Heloisa Zero, who works with the Alex Katz team. “I have worked for Alex since 2014, but I have known the family since the 1980s.”
Left: Lawyer Michael Stout. Over the years, Mr. Stout has represented many prominent artists and arts organizations as well as writers, choreographers, publishers, fashion photographers, and others in creative fields. Right: Linda Yablonsky, an art critic and journalist who has been covering the international art world for more than 25 years.
Left: Robin Cembalest, art world guru. Right: Shirin Neshat, Iranian artist and filmmaker.
Randy Kennedy and his wife Janet Krone Kennedy. Mr. Kennedy is the Editor of Ursula magazine, which is published by Hauser & Wirth. A long time art critic for the New York Times, Randy wrote many articles over the years about Alex Katz and his work.
Jonathan Bowen, the Production Editor of Gathering. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition ($69.95) features eleven newly commissioned essays by David Breslin, Katherine Brinson, Jennifer Y. Chuong, David Max Horowitz, Arthur Jafa, Katie Kitamura, Wayne Koestenbaum, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Kevin Lotery, Prudence Peiffer, and Levi Prombaum.
Alex Katz departs with his cadre after a triumphant evening.
This Photo Journal is dedicated to the memory of Peter Schjeldahl (1942-2022).