With the opening of a retrospective exhibition in New York, the artist Alex Katz is back at the center of the art world.
So is the Colby College Museum of Art.
The museum loaned more than a dozen Katz artworks from its collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which opened the highly anticipated and long-overdue retrospective, Alex Katz: Gathering, last week. It’s on view through Feb. 20.
The Guggenheim retrospective, which spans 70 years, coincides with Alex Katz: Theater & Dance on view at the Colby Museum through Feb. 19. Together, the exhibitions represent a creative triumph for Katz—a welcome late-career burst of attention, energy, and excitement—and serve as a testament to his commitment to being an artist.
“I’ve been painting for 77 years,” Katz, 95, recently told the New York Times. “I don’t think hardly any painter gets that opportunity.”
Below: Photographs from the retrospective, Alex Katz: Gathering, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Click on images to see entire view.
Among the most prominent paintings in the Guggenheim exhibition is West 2, a monumental oil-on-canvas nocturnal urban landscape from 1998 that is part of the Colby collection. Sublime and virtuous, it is the first painting visitors to the New York exhibition will see when they walk into the museum’s iconic high gallery.
Regular visitors to the Colby Museum will recognize the painting for its depiction of a city building at night, with only the glow of interior lights breaking a monochromatic exterior plane. Until going to New York, it was the longtime showpiece of the Boulos Gallery in the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz.
Its scale is massive—more than 10 feet high and 20 feet wide.
‘The superlative collection’
Katherine Brinson, the Guggenheim’s Daskalapoulos Curator for Contemporary Art, said West 2 and other works on loan from Colby figured prominently in the planning, execution, and overall tone of the exhibition. Colby’s Katz collection of nearly 900 artworks is central to understanding the artist and his role in contemporary art and American cultural life, she said.
“Colby has the superlative collection of Alex Katz works, from wonderful very early works to some of the signal masterpieces. You have sketches, cutouts, collages, prints—it’s the definitive Alex Katz,” Brinson said. “So of course, I always foresaw, after the artist himself, Colby would be the most important lender to this exhibition. And indeed, the museum has been incredibly generous and supportive.”
Levi Prombaum, Colby’s curator dedicated to Katz’s work and legacy and assistant editor and contributor to the catalog accompanying the Guggenheim retrospective, said West 2 commands attention while other works from Colby extend that energy across the exhibition. “You will see Colby works from the first room through nearly every ramp of the Guggenheim,” he said. “The Colby works are indispensable in telling the history of Alex Katz.”
Among the notable works from Colby are Three Figures on a Subway, a small, colorful early painting, from 1948; Track Jacket and Ada in Black Sweater, portraits of the artist and his wife, both from the mid-’50s; and Frank O’Hara, an oil-on-wood cutout of the influential New York poet.
The twin exhibitions have geographic significance. The Guggenheim retrospective is in the city where Katz was born and where he has kept a studio since he began painting. The Colby exhibition is in Katz’s home-away-from-home, in Maine, where he has painted nearly as long. He arrived as a student at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1949 and soon after bought a house in Lincolnville.
A longstanding relationship with Colby
His relationship with Colby grew with his friendship with Hugh Gourley, who directed the museum for more than 30 years and forged the foundation of the collection. Katz donated more than 400 works to the museum in the early 1990s. With the construction of the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz, the Katz collection has grown to nearly 900 works through additional gifts from the artist, gifts from other donors, and museum purchases. In addition, the Alex Katz Foundation has given nearly 500 works to the museum.
“There is no other museum in recent memory that has had a relationship as significant and as deep with a living artist as the Colby Museum has,” said Jacqueline Terrassa, the Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art. “Alex Katz transformed the Colby Museum with the art he gave us in 1992. He affirmed with this gesture—and with the many artworks by emerging and underrecognized artists that he has given to us in recent years—that living artists matter and that artists have a role to play in the shaping of institutions.”
While the Guggenheim exhibition examines a range of works, taking a macro view of Katz’s interests and artistic explorations, Colby’s Alex Katz: Theater & Dance focuses on the artist’s relationship with the performing arts. That micro view is a little-known aspect of Katz’s creative career, but it’s critical to understanding the context of his larger body of work, Prombaum said.
Since the late 1950s, Katz has designed sets and costumes for theater and dance. He worked closely with the New York-based Paul Taylor Dance Company, collaborating with the choreographer and his dancers on 15 productions. The relationship continues today. On Nov. 9, the Lincoln Center in New York will present Taylor X Katz, which will include four dances they created together.
In his work for theater and dance, Katz painted and drew flat, costumed figures, and created two-dimensional cutouts, or sculptures, of dancers in motion. Those figures informed both his work for the stage and large-scale work that he pursued in his studio.
“This show peels back the process and experimentation that led to the sensibility that we just take for granted as Alex Katz,” Prombaum said. “But there is no Alex Katz without an understanding of his contributions to the worlds of theater and dance.”
Throughout his career, Katz’s place in the trajectory of post-war American art has been elusive and hard to define. He rejected both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. His enduring and defining ability to capture gesture, form, and human expression with flat figures on a flat surface has given him a singular presence and artistic niche.
Alex Katz: Theater & Dance demonstrates the roots of those gestures and forms.
‘The best social dancer I ever met’
During a recent talk at Colby, Katz said his interest in dance began in high school. Later, when he met his wife, Ada, he met his match on the dance floor. “Ada turned out to be the best social dancer I ever met,” he said. “She could dance with a kangaroo and make it look good.”
Curated by a team that included the American art critic Robert Storr, Alex Katz: Theater & Dance feels vigorous and engaging, bringing together sketches, sets, and set pieces arrayed on the gallery floor, paintings, and archival materials from Paul Taylor Dance Company. Films of dances featuring Katz’s costumes and sets play on a continuous video loop, so visitors can see Katz’s conception of a work and Taylor’s finished piece.
Dance has served Katz well, said Storr. He was interested in it, good at it, and it gave him subjects and ideas to explore in his art.
“Alex admires things that are done purposefully and well, and dance is one of those things,” Storr said. “He is a man who appreciates style, and he understands that most things we do are stylized. How we dress, our manners, our way of speaking are all based on things we see and like.”
To make that point, Storr included the painting Pas De Deux in the Colby exhibition. It’s not a dance painting, but it could be, as its title implies. It’s a painting of stylish couples putting on their coats—perhaps preparing for a night at the theater. The couples touch one another as they help each other with their garments. Their gestures energize the painting.
It is Katz’s ability to capture intentional movement and touch that makes him such a singular painter, Storr said in a public talk at Colby.
“If you think there is choreography happening amongst us, then you begin to understand how deeply connected all the things he does are to the way we see and think about everyday life,” Storr said. “Alex’s work has always connected to everyday life. I have over and over insisted he is kind of the (Édouard) Manet of the 20th and 21st century. Because he is the painter of modern life—and that’s it.”
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