Born in 1927 to Russian émigrés in Brooklyn, Alex Katz’s career roughly parallels the modern history of New York. A melting pot of Modernist experimentation, it was there that Katz carved a niche for himself among mid-century luminaries like painters Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers; photographer Rudolph Burckhardt; and New York School poets John Ashbery, Edwin Denby, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler.
Since those early years, Katz’s art has also evolved with the city. From his 1950s paintings, which included numerous portraits of friends and his wife, Ada, an accomplished research biologist, to his more recent collages and large-scale landscapes, his career has been a story of continuous growth, as landmarks like the Empire State Building, the Waldorf Astoria, and Lincoln Center sprang up around him. It seems only natural, then, that Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—which recently celebrated its 63rd anniversary—should host the definitive retrospective of Katz’s life in art, “Alex Katz: Gathering.” In such a setting, Katz’s often domestic, personal subjects become universal, symbolic not only of a period in history, but of an entire people.
“We see [in Katz’s work] a panorama of the artists, poets, dancers, [and] curators who extended the achievements of the Abstract Expressionists in new ways,” says Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim. “Looking around, you can sense that Alex was not only a chronicler of these gifted folks, but also of the changing face of New York City.”
“Both the challenge and the wonder of planning this show was the extraordinary sweep of history that it encompasses,” adds Katherine Brinson, the Guggenheim’s Daskalopoulos Curator, Contemporary Art. “It offered a rare opportunity to include work that dates from the beginning of the postwar period … and [also] be in dialogue with a living artist who’s making some of the most riveting and experimental work of his career today.”
Arriving at the Guggenheim, the first painting to draw the eye is Katz’s 1946 Ella Marion in Red Sweater, a tender portrait of his mother, Sima Katz, followed by a series of sketches of subway riders from the late 1940s and beach scenes from the late 1950s. As they progress through the exhibition, attendees are treated to a chronology of Katz’s work that speaks to his changing fascinations over 70 years, with each floor representing roughly a decade in Katz’s career. Indeed, the top-floor space, featuring the show’s very latest paintings, actually smells faintly of fresh pigment—Ocean 9, a commanding black and white oil study, was still drying when it was hung.
“Alex Katz: Gathering” runs through February 20, 2023.