WATERVILLE, Maine — As hard-boiled as an eight-minute egg, as sensuous as a plump summer peach, Alex Katz, who turns 88 on Friday, is an ongoing enigma. When his mature work is good, there’s little better. Brisk, clean, blessedly bright, a great Katz can dominate a room like a freeway billboard, and at the same time serve up a panoply of painterly satisfactions.
When it’s not so good, it’s unaccountably awful — perhaps because Katz’s aggressive distillations of light and form into a permanent-summer, take-it-or-leave-it, super-sized style are like spiritual Teflon. They are style on steroids, simple love-of-life sublimated and then amplified to the level of a potent toxin.
Katz confidently rides the ambivalence his work can inspire. He doubles down on aesthetic decisions (to do with scale, distillation, and subject matter) that could as easily go one way as the other. You grow to admire his nerve. Given enough opportunity, that admiration can turn — as it has in my case — into a halting, hiccupping series of crushes, especially as you get a better grip on his origins.
And there are two excellent ways to do that. One is to read “Invented Symbols,” Katz’s autobiography. First published in 1996 and reissued in 2012, it’s a suavely compressed, insightful account, as taut as a Shaker box.
Another is to visit “Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s,” a major exhibition, organized by Diana Tuite, at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine. The accompanying catalog, with essays by Tuite, Katy Siegel, Richard Schiff, and Eva Diaz, is excellent.
Colby is home to the Alex Katz Collection and to the Paul J. Schupf Wing, a hangar-like addition permanently dedicated to showing Katz’s work. High and wide enough to house Katz’s corporate lobby-scale paintings, it makes an awkwardly capacious venue for the current show, which is made up of 65 mostly small paintings, collages, and cutouts.
Katz was born in 1927 and grew up in Queens. Both his parents came to New York from a part of Russia that is now Poland. His mother was an aspiring actress with a sharp, unsentimental mind. (When he once said to her, “It’s been awfully nice talking to you,” she replied: “I hope you don’t paint in clichés.”)
His father, who died when Katz was 16, was a playboy who liked to ride motorcycles and dive off bridges. He used to paint their house, reports Katz, in “refined colors,” and there are several telling pages at the beginning of his autobiography given over to descriptions of those colors (pale yellow, dusty rose, dull maroon, apple green, and plum). They culminate in the story of Katz’s unilateral decision to repaint the house aquamarine after his father’s death. Never before, to my knowledge, has interior decorating felt so Oedipally charged.
The Colby show begins with a series of small paintings in Masonite that Katz painted between 1950 and 1952. He had just moved to Manhattan from Queens after studying for three years at Cooper Union.
Most of these first works are group portraits based on posed photographs, with the subject’s faces entirely blocked out. My favorite is “Two Boys.” It presents its two diminutive subjects in shorts in front of a telegraph pole on a suburban street.
The painting possesses exactly the intimate, lyrical, slightly nostalgic feeling Katz has said he was after. But with its browns, grays, reds, greens, and yellows, each one in a half dozen different hues, it also establishes a charming overall harmony.
Jackson Pollock was just then hitting his stride. His large-scale drip paintings had made him the subject of a now-legendary write-up in Life magazine in August 1949. Trying to keep pace with him, Willem de Kooning was meanwhile flowering forth, and within a year or two, every ambitious artist in New York seemed to be bashing out big-scale abstract paintings, borne aloft by great puffs of critical rhetoric.
Katz’s perverse insistence on making small portraits and landscapes in sweet and tangy colors was partly a reaction to this rhetoric, which he found, he admitted, “a little pompous.” Aesthetics, for Katz, were straightforward. They were a matter of “what you liked and didn’t like. It’s a process that starts when you’re young. You like things, and you don’t like other things.”
He started experimenting with flat areas of color in 1953-54. Pictures like “Jean” (of fellow artist Jean Cohen, to whom he was married for six years) and “Seated Alex” are marvels of sophisticated color harmonies — a peachy pink with light brown, deep brown, and black in “Jean”; pink, yellow, and orange in “Seated Alex” — but they are rather too blatantly derived from Matisse.
Smaller, juicier paintings such as “Goldenrods” and “Field of Wildflowers” see Katz using motifs from nature to experiment with the “all-over” approach to composition, whereby no one part of the composition is allowed to prevail over the others. Championed by the critic Clement Greenberg, the “all-over” was epitomized by Pollock’s poured paintings and by de Kooning’s 1950 masterpiece, “Excavation.”
Katz had no interest in excavating anything. He was all about surface and speed. In the late 1940s, he had studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in central Maine, where he had practiced painting quickly out in the landscape. “It was a kick, it was a real blast,” he remembered. “It was like feeling lust for the first time.”
In 1954, Katz, Cohen, and fellow artist Lois Dodd together took a place in Lincolnville, on Maine’s coast, where they henceforth spent the summers. “Being able to see the Maine light helped me separate myself from European painting and find my own eyes,” Katz wrote.
In Lincolnville, Katz produced some stunning landscapes. The jangly, close-toned, citrus-and-cream harmonies of “Lincolnville Beach” are one of the show’s high points.
All the while, he was making collages. While obviously inspired by Matisse’s late cut-outs, these were in fact everything that Matisse is not: small and fussily centripetal rather than large and languorously expansive.
In the second half of the ’50s, Katz turned to portraiture. He admired Philip Guston’s “artless way of painting,” and the fact that his work, abstract at this point, wasn’t at all psychological. With a perversity I can only admire, Katz tried now to bring both these qualities to bear on portraiture.
The portraits he painted from 1957 on — beginning with his friend, the great modern dance critic Edwin Denby, and moving on to Irving and Lucy Sandler, Rudy Burckhardt and Edith Schloss, James Schuyler, Norman Bluhm, Robert Rauschenberg, and Ada del Moro (a biology student he met in 1957 and married in 1958) — are artless, as well as deadpan.
They’re pretexts for Katz to try out color combinations, and to place figures first against neutral (usually off-white) backgrounds, then against even fields of saturated color, and finally to cut away the backgrounds entirely, presenting the figures as freestanding cutouts.
These are the works that Katz’s peers — including Guston and de Kooning — saw at the Tanager Gallery in New York in 1959 and responded to with genuine enthusiasm. Katz called it “the most electrifying show I ever had.”
Contemplating Katz’s real or imagined influences, and looking for like-minded coevals, you can have a field day, finding evidence of the impact of Matisse almost everywhere (sometimes funneled through Milton Avery), but also of Pollock, de Kooning, Guston, Dodd, Edouard Manet, Edvard Munch, Larry Rivers, Ellsworth Kelly, Marisol, Bernard Langlais, the photographer Mathew Brady, posters and magazine advertisements, the movies, and much else besides.
But influence-spotting begins to pale in interest as your eyes lock on to Katz’s developing color sense. Everything that matters about Katz is ultimately connected to color.
In “Ives Field,” for instance, a burnt orange field that takes up most of the picture is set against a gray-blue sky, mediated by a deeper blue mountain range and four green trees on the horizon. Katz is grappling with color as a series of weights — and succeeding brilliantly.
Meanwhile, “Provincetown” (1959), in which a green curving hill meets a pink sky and a sky-blue sea, is as distilled as anything by Ellsworth Kelly. It reminds us that what sits on the surface can be shockingly profound.
When Katz said that during the 1950s, “I was crazy about Matisse and I was looking at the simplicity of advertising illustrations,” it wasn’t a non sequitur. He was astutely connecting the distillations of Matisse with the boldness of advertising, and he didn’t care to make distinctions of value between them.
This deadpan, unneurotic attitude was there in his pictures, too, and it related to new strains in American literature at the time — above all, to the playful, plainspoken poetry of friends like Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery; but also to the way postwar plenty meets personal appetite in the early stories of John Updike.
Katz’s attention to the surface of things, like Updike’s, can be disconcertingly aggressive. It can cloak a baseline melancholy often overlooked in his work. The small, 1950s pictures, which feature empty chairs, stiffly posed, expressionless couples surrounded by acres of empty space, and color harmonies that have an acidic, almost bitter edge, feel cut off, soundproofed, and fundamentally lonely.
Other paintings, however, are spry and almost jocular. “George’s Basketball,” “Ada,” and the cutout of a bather in a bikini called “Maxine” (her figure naked when seen from behind) are among the first full-throated moments in American Pop Art. They are flat, deadpan, sexy, and off-handedly nostalgic, like cheap perfume. They sometimes come in duplicate, or even triplicate, and they’re presented in colors that owe more to advertising than nature.
Katz never committed to Pop’s urbane and ironic ethos — he was too much in love with Maine, Matisse, poetry, and painterly values. This show reveals with what stubbornness, perversity, and cool-headedness he searched for the sweet spots of a visual culture moving quickly between dizzying extremes – between an idea of authenticity, lyrical feeling, and heroic struggle on the one hand and, on the other, poker-faced wit, material plenty, and demotic energy.
BRAND-NEW & TERRIFIC: Alex Katz in the 1950s
At: Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine, through Oct. 18.
207-859-5600, www.colby.edu/ academics_cs/museumSebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@