Last week, the New York Times reviewed a retrospective of the works of the painter Alex Katz. Drawn from the collection of the Whitney Museum, the show is currently on exhibit at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Long Island, New York.
Katz was of course closely tied to the New York School of poets, with whom he collaborated and enjoyed close friendships. From his famous “cut-out” portrait of O’Hara (above), to his illustrations for a special edition of Ashbery’s long poem Fragment (1969), to the cover of Schuyler’s first book Freely Espousing, to the portrait gracing the recent Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch, to his iconic portraits of Ted Berrigan, Katz — and his paintings — seems to pop up everywhere in the story of New York School poetry (in both its first and second generations). Katz is a central figure in any account of the relationship between these poets and postwar painting, and it is surely no accident that his son, Vincent Katz — who grew up surrounded by this literary milieu — has become a prominent poet, editor, translator, and art critic, carrying on the tradition of New York poetry in a host of ways.
The review points out that Katz’s career began with a signal turn to figurative painting during the heyday of Clement Greenberg and the triumphant reign of abstraction he promoted:
“The standard narrative in 20th-century art history is that painters had to struggle against tradition and conservative institutions to forge a new language of abstraction. But then abstraction itself became an orthodoxy, and those who wanted to paint nature or the human figure found themselves swimming against the tide of earlier revolutions. The career of Alex Katz, who successfully made this transition, is one example. A selection of about 45 of his works from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art is on view at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor.”
Katz’s contrarian interest in figurative painting in the midst of the Ab-Ex-saturated 1950s was a proclivity he shared with a number of other painters closest to the New York School poets, especially Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, and Jane Freilicher. Katz, however, put his own stamp on this new direction. His distinctive form of portraiture — especially in the countless portraits of his wife Ada, as well as of other family members and the fellow artists and poets who were his friends — became his signature. “The flat application of color is a hallmark of Mr. Katz’s paintings,” and he quickly became known for his “suave, sophisticated, polished, refined, cultured, stylish” approach to painting. (As the review points out, “Mr. Katz’s own style has had a varied legacy. It has become ubiquitous in advertising and graphic design, but also generative for younger artists like Brian Alfred or Kota Ezawa“).
Although the piece mentions in passing that “in a video accompanying the show, [Katz] describes how New York in the ’50s was rich with poetry, jazz and Afro-Cuban music,” it doesn’t dwell on Katz’s deep and abiding connections to the poets in his circle.
In fact, there hasn’t been as much sustained attention to Alex Katz in critical discussions of New York School poetry and art as there should be. A very interesting story is waiting to be told about Katz, the poets, and the fruitful conversation between their works.