MFA Celebrates the Poppa of Pop Art
by jared bowen
Alex Katz with his cutout Edwin and Rudy, circa 1968
His works are sublimely bold and vibrant—portraits that sear despite their deceptive simplicity, landscapes remarkable for their pureness. Alex Katz has endured for some 60 years now, as celebrated in "Alex Katz Prints," a new retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts. Blame Matisse, an artist Katz has admired since his youth and who inspired him to chart his own maverick path. "I just think he's a fabulous artist," Katz says. "A lot of the work I've done is to get away from him…. He was kind of dominating."
What Katz went toward was his own singular vision—anticipating Pop art by distilling influences from advertising, movies, and television with works rendered in dramatic close-ups, luminous color, and unconventional cropping. It was work that led the way for an entire generation of Pop artists. "I think I was an influence on Warhol," Katz says. "Anyone can see it if they put the dates together." Warhol, like Katz, took cues from popular culture, albeit with a much more cynical sense. Much of Katz's own inspiration came from what he describes as the "buoyancy of American culture" in the 1960s. From the SoHo apartment and studio he's inhabited since 1968, the Brooklyn native recalls the New York of that era. "The billboards and wide-angle screens were marvelous images, and they brought a freshness for me. They were a new way of taking painting."
The MFA show, presented in conjunction with Katz's gift to the museum of an archive of his work dating from the 1960s, showcases some 125 pieces. "He's crept into being one of the modern masters with a quiet, dogged consistency and a strong determination," says MFA director Malcolm Rogers. Many of the show's featured works are portraits of the stunningly beautiful Ada, Katz's wife and muse of 54 years. He never tires of his beloved model. "I still manage to come up with images of her," he says. "There's the thing of age. She's getting older, and that's interesting. To try to capture some of that is the challenge."
"When you meet her she is absolutely the woman in the paintings," Rogers says. Also omnipresent in the exhibition are Katz's landscapes of Maine, where he's summered ever since 1954, five years after receiving a scholarship for study at the Skowhegan school of painting and sculpture. "Where I live it's very varied," he explains of his home in Lincolnville. "When I get tired of one place, I can go to another place where there are woods, lakes, seals, the ocean, and all of the flowers. It's a lot to keep me occupied."
Even at 84, Katz maintains a vigorous work and fitness regimen. Lean and muscular, he looks decades younger than he actually is. Exercise always revives him, he says. "Sometimes in the summer I go into a heavy physical routine. I find that I can be very tired from painting. Then I go running and go for a swim, then I paint some more," Katz says. "You can't be decrepit and paint a 20-foot canvas." Or be a fashion model. In the past decade Katz has appeared in print campaigns for J.Crew. "J.Crew was fun," he says with a laugh. "I work with gestures, so I could easily fit into what the photographers wanted."
Prolific as ever, Katz remains true to his style. Never has he been tempted to shock—a compulsion of many of the contemporary artists he likely influenced. "I have a lot of pride," he says. "[With shock value] the subject matter counts more than the painting. With my work you have to like more of the painting." He also still paints using real models as sitters—a long-standing practice from capturing contemporaries like dance critic Edwin Denby and poet Ted Berrigan in the '70s to more recent models like Christy Turlington and Kate Moss. "The color you get from life is much better than from photographs," Katz says. It is this philosophy, and the prowess behind it, that have enshrined him in the pantheon of American greats. "Alex Katz Prints" is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through July 29. 465 Huntington Ave., 617-267-9300.
photography courtesy of the museum of fine arts, boston