Alex Katz: Gathering at the Guggenheim

Alex Katz The Red Smile at the Guggenheim


Alex Katz Guggenheim exhibition
View of the Alex Katz: Gathering exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC.

Despite opening last October, I just got around to seeing the Alex Katz retrospective titled “Alex Katz: Gathering” at the Guggenheim last week. The show closes on February 20th, so I wanted to put this out there today – if you can get over to the Guggenheim in the next few days, it’s a good show to see. On a side note – if you need another reason to get to the Guggenheim, the concurrent show “Nick Cave: Forothermore” is fantastic – more on that show later, since it’s up through April 10th.

But back to Alex Katz, the term “retrospective” is perfectly applied here, as the show covers eight decades of work. That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think? Katz is currently 95 years old, and some of the earliest pieces in the show include some drawings from 1946 and a canvas from 1948, when he was 21 years old. The full show includes paintings, oil sketches, collages, prints, and freestanding “cutout” works, which are fun to see, since the people painted and presented as cutouts are approximately life-sized. Speaking of which, I’ve included an installation shot below which features the painting “Muna” at left, and a double-portrait cutout titled “Francesco” at right, which depicts the Italian artist Francesco Clemente. You can’t see the full cutout in this picture, but the double Francescos both are full-bodied and free-standing, supported upright on a metal base which sits flat on the floor.

Alex Katz painting and cutout at the Guggenheim
“Muna,” 1990 (left), and “Francesco,” 1992 (right), by Alex Katz on view at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC.

The exhibition title of “Gathering” has multiple meanings: 1, it references the study of the visible world as described in the 1951 poem “Salute” by James Schuyler, who was a friend of the artist; 2, it’s the obvious description of this collection of his life’s work being gathered together at the Guggenheim; and 3, most of the subjects in these paintings are his personal friends, and reflect a gathering of friends. But one could argue that he has a unusually interesting and prominent collection of friends, as many are significant figures in a 20th century “who’s who” of poets, artists, dancers, musicians, and critics, including Frank O’Hara, Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Taylor, LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Joe Brainard, Kynaston McShine, Anne Waldman, John Ashbery, Meredith Monk, Allen Ginsberg, Mariko Mori, Bill T. Jones, and Joan Jonas, among others.

Another common subject of Alex Katz’s portraits is his wife Ada, who has appeared in over one thousand paintings in their 65 years of marriage. That’s just remarkable, both 65 years of marriage and being the subject of over a thousand paintings! Below is “The Red Smile,” 1963, and it brings up some points I’d like to make. I’ve enjoyed seeing Alex Katz’s work reproduced in books and online for years, and while one could argue that they look pretty simple in style from these reproductions, seeing them in person shows so much more (doesn’t it always?). The shadows, the streaks of color in the hair, these and other details can be appreciated so much more seeing them in person and up close. And of course the scale – seeing a painting like this that measures approximately 7 x 10 feet, compared to small reproductions in books – it’s a totally different viewing experience. 7 x 10 feet puts it on a scale similar to many abstract expressionist paintings, which Katz was very familiar with, since he was doing his own work at the same time those artists were living and working. The critic Carter Ratcliff once wrote: “Appropriating the monumental scale, stark composition and dramatic light of the Abstract Expressionists, he would beat the heroic generation at their own game,” and Katz himself added: “It was an open door, no one was doing representational painting on a large scale” at that time in the 1950s.

Alex Katz The Red Smile at the Guggenheim
“The Red Smile,” 1963, by Alex Katz, on view at the Guggenheim Museum.

One little side note on this painting: as I was standing there, spending some time observing it and taking in the grand scale up close, I noticed something I haven’t seen on a Katz work before, at least not that I can recall: two little drips of blue paint in the section of hair above the right collar. They seem to be accidents, as everything else is so clearly delineated and clean. I’m not a Katz scholar by any stretch, but it was a small detail that I found interesting to catch.

If you’d like to learn more about Alex Katz and this show, check out the Guggenheim’s press release here.

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