In the latter half of the twentieth century, since the advent of Abstract Expressionism, the tendency in the art world and amongst the general public has been to divide all artists into two camps--Realists and Abstractionists. Even people who ought to know better fall back on this dichotomy of oversimplification. And the art world especially HATES those artists who straddle the fence, sometimes painting realistically, sometimes painting abstractly, as if they were somehow schizophrenic in doing so. Some artists even manage to "straddle the fence" in the same painting. Of course the labelizing critics will look at the work and cast it one direction or the other, either Realism or Abstraction, based sometimes I think on pure whim. One of the artists whom they love to do this to is Alex Katz.
Katz was born in 1927, in Brooklyn, later moving to Queens--New York born and bred--still lives there, in fact. His parents were Russian-Polish immigrants, steeped in the arts. He studied at the legendary Cooper Union, practically in his backyard, coming of age in the art world almost precisely at the dawn of the Abstract Expressionist era. By all rights he SHOULD have become an abstractionist. He was a contemporary of Pollock, Rothko, Hoffman, Johns, Motherwell, and all the others, but amazingly, any abstract tendencies in his work are strictly formalistic. Perhaps it was because he won a scholarship to study at the Skowhegan (Maine) School of Painting and Sculpture, taking him away from the boiling pot of the New York School right when it was bubbling at it's hottest. Not surprisingly, given the environment, he picked up a love of landscape painting, very nearly the antithesis of Abstract Expressionism at the time.
Katz's first one-man show was in 1954 at the Roko Gallery in New York. The headlines might have read: "Hometown boy returns and makes good." Except it wasn't at all like that. His landscapes and poster-like, flattened portraits were quite out of step with the mainstream. It took the passing of the Abstract era and the 1950s before the advent of figural painting and Pop allowed Katz's work hit it's stride. It fell neatly into both categories, even though it displayed a number of quite abstract elements. In the 70's and 80's, he capitalized on this blending. His "Varick" from 1988 is a prime example, or his "Ada and Alex" from 1980 (a double portrait of himself and his wife). Both are excellent examples of his mature work. In the portrait, an exquisite, design realism dominates. In "Varick" the five by twelve-foot black canvas seems the ultimate minimal statement, until one begins to inspect the bank of twelve small rectangles in the upper left corner--lighted windows of what appears to be a second story office or lab. Suddenly, the mind flip-flops, making a futile effort to discern the rest of the structure amidst the impossibly inky night.
The poster-like quality of many of Katz's paintings has led him into the printing field, creating, in collaboration with master printmakers, same-size screen prints of his favorite works, all intended to dominate walls just as his enormous paintings do. Unlike many painters who find themselves at the mercy of publishing houses, Katz takes an active, hands-on role in the printing of his works, usually is editions of less than fifty. He's even found occasions when he likes the print better than the original painting. And recently, just to confound the damnable critics, he sometimes goes so far as to veer off into purely abstractionist images such as his "Piers 6" from 1998. Excuse me for playing favorites, but I love an artists who can (and will) do that. In my own work, I consider the most successful, those paintings that straddle the proverbial fence--Realism which, in it's sometimes highly abstract qualities, appeals to those who can appreciate such things, and in it's illusionary, subjective content, those who can't.