Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s
Alex Katz’s show at the Cleveland Museum of Art could not be more aptly named. Brand-New and Terrific is a perfect title for the exhibition, which is strange considering it shows the artist’s work exclusively from the 1950s.
But Katz’s approach was very unconventional, maybe even unfashionable at the time. Practicing during a time when Abstract Expressionism was the critical mode of art making, Katz was trying something different. He was working from photos and life, trying to translate pictorial representations expressively. Instead of rejecting Abstract Expressionism outright and going back to old traditions of painting recognizable images, Katz’s vision saw beyond to something that was “post-Abstract Expressionist.”
This is evident as soon as you walk into the show. The first few paintings are just as clearly from photos as they are painterly. Inspired by the photographic work of Matthew Brady, an early photographer famous for documenting the Civil War, they depict group photos (of the classic posed variety,) with rows of people standing in the back and sitting or kneeling in the front. The faces of the figures are omitted and in fact, they are painted in a way that takes many notes from abstract expressionism. The show makes this even more clear by hanging a painting of a crowd of figures dealt with such vigor to the point of breaking (it becomes an effective field painting) next to a placard explaining that Katz closely studied Jackson Pollock, (the granddaddy of Abstract Expressionism,) in the early 1950s.
Katz was working from black and white photos, so he had to make artistic choices about his use of color. He is a very astute colorist and seems to work intuitively, even to go as far as to simultaneously painting a figure’s face a cool pastel green and their pants an unabashed blue jean blue. The most rewarding aspect of the show is that the works are arranged in chronological order, and consequently demonstrates a clear direction in the visible evolution of Katz’ oeuvre.
His first paintings had a myriad of colors and were painted expressively, with thin drippy paint, bits of bare canvas peeking through that Katz worked into his composition. Abruptly in the early half of the 1950s, Katz cut the amount of colors he was using to include only the bare-essentials; with as little as three or four distinct colors making up a single composition.
Along with this change, Katz’ use of large blocks of color now leaves no portion of the bare canvas showing - although, the paint remains thin and the brushwork minimized yet still visible. These compositions are succinct and exceptionally vivid. The colors of the landscapes Katz created during his summers in Maine really glow and capture the seasonal light.
The exhibition of Katz’ work includes a small collection of collaged cutout compositions made from watercolored paper. These exemplify the aforementioned shift that the artist made with his much larger oil on canvas paintings. These works are like a small puzzle, with each abstract colored shape making an essential part of nameable objects: a cat, a house, a chair. They are strikingly simple and clear images from a distance, but upon closer inspection, reveal their construction.
Katz’s Matisse-inspired collage work is arguably his most gratifying as it reveals much of the artist’s hand and thought process. In addition to his collage work, there are an even smaller number of cutout works. These are either cutout canvas pasted on wood panels or oil paint applied directly to the panel cut out in the shaped of the object. The result is a sort of two-dimensional sculpture. A single figure plucked from reality and put on display as plainly as possible, encompassing much of what the work is ultimately about. These objects speak to his larger oil paintings of figures and portraits where the subject is in a posed stance, suspended in a field of off-white cream. The subject (often a friend of Katz; an artist, poet, or his frequently pictured wife,) is displayed in simple composition, with effort to not show anything other than what was in front of the artist. These paintings have smeared brushwork around the subject, giving them an aura of dimensionality that is reminiscent of his collages and cutouts.
The show ends with a collection of lithograph prints, which emphasize the constancy of Katz’ repeated motifs. His multi-color prints are a graphic marvel and upon exiting, curators have included a quote by Katz stating, “Part of what I’m about is seeing how I can paint the same thing differently instead of different things the same way.” This closing quote is represented in his repeated paintings of his wife Ada, and perhaps even more so in his double portraits consisting of a single figure mirrored on two sides of one canvas. These are self-described “non-psychological portraits”—a nearly impossible task and again very unfashionable for the time, but telling of Katz’ efforts to plainly capture objective reality in a concise spirit of paint-what-you-see.
The reason this Alex Katz exhibition is so terrific is because he was going against the grain of his time; not in a rebellious regressive manner but on a directionally forward path. And the reason it feels so “brand new” is precisely because he was not a follower of a movement but an individual artist with a unique voice. Brand-New & Terrific feels so contemporary it is jarring, and the work is presented in ways that epitomize just about everything you could hope for in an art exhibition. The show all felt cohesive despite the work being so varied in medium. The collages, lithographs, cutouts and oil paintings all contributed to a singular journey early in an artist’s career. You get to see him grapple with the trends of the time and his own vision in relation to them.
The fact that the show only features his work from the 1950s made me curious about how his work progressed even further and left me wanting more. I highly recommend seeing this show, especially if you are a student. Being between semesters without direction can cause art-block and it is invigorating to see shows like this. If anything, as a reminder that those who do not box themselves in by following trends and listen to their own voice can arrive at meaningful places that are fresh, even sixty years on.
Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s will be showing at the Cleveland Museum of Art through August 6th.
Written by Ryan Kerr.