American, b. 1927
Alex Katz is a leading figure painter of the new realism movement in contemporary art. He is best known for his realistic portraits of friends and family, notable for their relaxed attitudes and uncomplicated bearing. Katz was born in New York City, and studied art at the Cooper Union from 1945 to 1949. In the late 1950s, he found himself among a growing number of artists dissatisfied with the then-dominant stream of abstract expressionism, with its emphasis on formal abstraction.
Katz developed his highly stylized aesthetic in reaction to 1950s Abstract Expressionism, finding his own distinctive resolution between formalism and representation. His brightly colored figurative and landscape paintings are rendered in a flat style that takes cues from everyday visual culture like advertising and cinema, in many ways anticipating both the formal and conceptual concerns of Pop Art. Well known for his many portraits of his wife and muse, Ada, Katz has also dedicated himself to printmaking and freestanding sculptures of cutout figures painted on wood or aluminum.
At Cooper Union, Katz studied painting under Morris Kantor and was trained in Modern art theories and techniques. Upon graduating in 1949, Katz was awarded a scholarship for summer study at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine, a grant that he would renew the following summer. During his years at Cooper Union, Katz had been exposed primarily to modern art and was taught to paint from drawings. Skowhegan encouraged him to paint from life, which would prove pivotal in his development as a painter and remains a staple of his practices today. Katz explains that Skowhegan’s plein air painting gave him “a reason to devote my life to painting.”
Katz's paintings from the late 1950s to the present have been characterized by such literal, yet expressive, portrayals of human figures. Stylistically, his figures are simplified in form, but not caricatured. On the contrary, one of the hallmarks of Katz's figures is their apparent normalcy. Katz's figures are typically presented at close range from a frontal perspective, and in a flattened manner somewhat suggestive of a Polaroid snapshot. Filling up the spaces of his canvases, his figures address the viewer head-on, creating a sense of familiarity reinforced by the subjects' relaxed attitudes.
Katz has received numerous accolades throughout his career. In 2007, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy Museum, New York. In 2005, Katz was the honored artist at the Chicago Humanities Festival’s Inaugural Richard Gray Annual Visual Arts Series. The same year, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Colgate University, Hamilton, New York— his second Honorary Doctorate, following one from Colby College, Maine, in 1984. Katz was named the Philip Morris Distinguished Artist at the American Academy in Berlin in 2001 and received the Cooper Union Annual Artist of the City Award in 2000. Katz was inducted by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1988. In 1987 he was the recipient of the Pratt Institute’s Mary Buckley Award for achievement and also received the Queens Museum of Art Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Chicago Bar Association honored Katz with the Award for Art in Public Places in 1985. In 1978, Katz received the U.S. Government grant to participate in an educational and cultural exchange with the USSR. Katz was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship for Painting in 1972.