The early artwork of Alex Katz shines in “Brand-New & Terrific” at the Cleveland Museum of Art
By Michael C. Butz
As Alex Katz began his career in the 1950s, contemporaries and institutions largely shunned his artwork because it was a distinct departure from the abstract expressionism – think the emotive splatters of Jackson Pollack or the forceful tension of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” series – that defined the era.
Some 60 years later, however, Katz’s artistic persistence is rewarded in the form of a comprehensive exhibition of his early work. The featured art – figurative in nature, lush with pastels and cream colors – is immediately impressive and puts on display the shortsightedness of the prevailing mid-century mindset.
“Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s,” which derives its name from Katz’s early manifesto announcing his intentions to invigorate traditional artist subject matter and showcases more than 70 loans from public and private collections, is on view from April 30 through Aug. 6 in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Hall.
The exhibition was organized by the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, where it was first on view in late 2015, and curated by Colby’s Katz curator, Diana K. Tuite, who says the context in which he made his art is important to consider while taking in the show.
“Especially in the early years, it was so unfashionable – this was the kind of painting that could get you in trouble,” she says. “It was radical to be painting in a more traditional style, in some respects. It was seen as backwards, or regressive – and it meant he didn’t get many exhibitions, except at artist-run galleries.”
So was Katz a triumphant underdog? Perhaps in some ways. But the larger narrative of “Brand-New & Terrific” is one of the Brooklyn-born and Queens-raised artist developing and mastering his craft.
Entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by early ’50s works Katz finished not long after completing studies at The Cooper Union in New York (1949) and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine (1950).
For these figurative paintings, Katz worked from black-and-white photographs rather than with models, and as he translated the photos to canvas, he added colors, blocked out figures, and omitted certain details and features.
The scenes – family gatherings, busy street vendors, neighborhood kids on a sidewalk, groups of adult friends – are all vaguely familiar. Combined with the curiosity the figures’ featureless nature elicits, viewers are naturally drawn in to Katz’s world. “Four People” conveys a sort of stoic melancholy but leaves viewers to ponder the mood and occasion. Further, it’s inadvertently nostalgic. One can easily envision a Studebaker Sky Hawk parked next to the house behind the four figures.
Katz’s use of color is extraordinary. Inspired in part by his surroundings and influenced by works from French artist Henri Matisse, he sophisticatedly harmonizes hues – eggshell blues, goldenrods, grassy greens, peaches-and-creams, burnt oranges – and drops viewers into dreamy landscapes. The soft pink sky and waterfront depicted in “Camden, Maine” transport viewers to an enchanting seaside twilight.
By the mid ’50s, Katz started experimenting with small-scale collages. Inspired further by Matisse, who’d been working with cut paper since the late 1940s, Katz explored the way shapes could inform his art.
Katz transferred lessons learned from his collages to his paintings, which were growing larger in scale. “Lincolnville Beach,” which demonstrates his use of structures and color to produce his scene, superbly captures this moment in the artist’s development.
In the latter half of the decade, Katz shifted his focus to portraits. Facial features make their way into the work, but the scenes behind the figures slowly fade away – to the point where he dispenses with them altogether in favor of freestanding wood cutouts, or “flat statues,” as they were called at first.
By this time, he’d stopped using photographs and instead used people as models. “Track Jacket” is a self-portrait, but otherwise he relied on friends and creative colleagues. Katz’s most frequent muse for portraits was his wife, Ada del Moro, a research biologist he met in 1957 and married in 1958.
The solitary nature in which Katz depicts his subjects is reminiscent of portrait photographs from a bygone era – and at times invites psychological interrogations from viewers. But that isn’t the only reason they’re engaging. Katz’s use of color again draws attention, providing intriguing consonance between subjects more complex than in his earlier works and backgrounds equally more muted.
In 1959, Katz completed “Ada Ada,” which as the name implies, depicted his wife twice in the same painting. Tuite points out that in this piece, the “one-for-one concept gets confounded” by Katz, thus raising questions regarding the intent of portraiture. Further, some consider “Ada Ada” a precursor to the Pop Art movement and Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans.”
“Brand-New & Terrific” concludes with a gallery that’s unique to the Cleveland iteration of the exhibition: ’60s- and ’70s-era Katz works that are part of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s permanent collection. In fact, Tuite says CMA’s possession of these pieces made it a natural fit for this show.
“We had thought of Cleveland very early on,” she says, adding she’s “excited” that the exhibition is showing at CMA. “It’s such a major museum, and it has a great collection of American art.”
Anchored by “Impala,” a monumental 1968 canvas that approximates Katz’s quick sideways glance at Ada immersed in thought during a drive through the Utah mountains, CMA’s collection serves as a fitting coda to the main attraction.
If widespread praise eluded Katz – who’ll turn 90 during the run of “Brand-New & Terrific” at CMA – decades ago, it shouldn’t now. This exhibition is a delight, and it showcases why Katz’s early artwork deserves recognition equal to that earned by other artistic heavyweights of the ’50s. CV
WHAT: “Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s”
WHEN: April 30 through Aug. 6
WHERE: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd.
TICKETS: $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and college students; $6 for children 6 to 17; free for museum members and children under 5
MORE: “In Conversation: Diana Tuite and Alex Katz” at 7 p.m. Friday, May 12, in CMA’s Gartner Auditorium. Join Katz and Tuite for a discussion about Katz’s career and works in the exhibition. Free; ticket required.
INFO: Visit clevelandart.org or call 216-421-7350.
Lead image: “Bather,” 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on linen; 121.9 x 182.9 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.189. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.