Ferndale's Susanne Hilberry Gallery mounts exhibition of landscape works
by celebrated painter Alex Katz.
Special to the Jewish News
pen a book about painter Alex Katz and one is
struck by the seemingly one-dimensional quali-
ty of his works. Reproductions emphasize the
flatness and simplicity of his subject matter, and his
palette often appears washed out, almost dull.
Visit a museum or gallery exhibiting originals of the
same works, however, and visitors are struck by the tex-
ture of each brushstroke on the canvas. What translates
in reproductions as simplicity of form and coolness of
surface now invites a closer examination, which, in
turn, reveals the paintings' emotional complexity.
Now, a closer examination of Katz's work is ours for
the taking at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale,
where 19 pieces will be shown in an exhibit, titled
"Alex Katz," through March 5.
"Beyond the beautiful exteriors and perfection of his
paintings," says Susanne Hilberry, owner of the
Susanne Hilberry Gallery, "one only slowly begins to
see brushstrokes. When you're in front of one of his
paintings, it has a physical presence that's just not
describable. It comes to life. It's magical the way that it
can give you so little information and fact but feel so
Alex Katz was born in 1927 in New York City
to Russian-Jewish émigrés. Although his father
came from a family of scholars, and his mother
came to New York via Palestine and acted in the
Yiddish theater on the city's Lower East Side,
Katz was not raised in a religious household.
"There were 24 houses on our block in
Queens, where my family moved and I grew
up," says the artist. "And the only thing all the
families living there had in common was the
price they paid for their house. I think there was
one other Jewish family. I had very little contact
with the religion."
One aspect of Judaism that he still connects to today,
however, is his name. "I kept it," he says. "Which was
uncommon at that time. Everyone changed their
names. Rothko's name was changed. Larry Rivers had a
really long Hebrew name. But it's important to me. It
tells you straight off who my parents were."
Katz was always interested in art, but before gravitat-
ing toward fine art, he first was focused on being a
commercial artist, a beginning that remains an appar-
ent basis to his work today.
"I always painted part time. I thought I wasn't good
enough to be a good artist," says Katz. "But then I
decided I didn't care, I was just going to do it."
He adds, "I think it was the right
Studying at New York's Cooper
Union School of Art and Maine's
Skowhegan School of Painting and
Sculpture, he came of age artistically
in the 1950s in the midst of an art
scene dominated by Jackson Pollock
and the Abstract Expressionists, and
later, the Pop Art of Roy Lichtenstein
and Andy Warhol.
"The important thing to realize,"
explains Hilberry, "is that those tides
are simply tides. Katz grew up at the
same time as many of those artists
and so they have some common soci-
Lefr: Photograph of Alex Katz 1978;
and, above, a self-portrait, 'Alex,"
1970, lithograph in eight colors
(not on view. at the Hilberry Gallery)
etal influences," she says. "He was surveying his own
popular culture of the time, which was full of cool
commercial graphic design and billboards."
Instead of reacting against those hard, cool surfaces
with the emotional intensity and gestural brushstrokes
of the Abstract Expressionists, which is something he
clearly understood and was immersed in, he reacted
against the turmoil of that art with a more mannered
vision of his environment. •
More of interest to Katz was style, which he found in
abundance in contemporary poetry and jazz. As he
wrote in his memoir Invented Symbols, "I always felt
that the advanced painting in New York had much
more to do with bebop than existentialism."
At the same time, "there was also a great figurative
tradition that Katz was very interested in, including the
work of Fairfield Porter, Marsden Hartley and Willem
de Kooning," says Hilberry.
But rather than being directly influenced by them,
he "incorporates their vocabulary and individualizes it
with a certain kind of exterior calm and containment. I
think that is what is remarkable about Alex."
Defying definition, Katz's work has become best
known for his larger-than-life portraits, bringing to still
life people in the literary, art and social circles he
moved in, as well as everyday people like his second
wife and muse, Ada, and son, Vincent.
Because his work is so stylized, it seems impossible to
KATZ on page 36
Above: Alex Katz: "Yarrow," 2002, oil on canvas,
5'6" x 7'6" (at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery)
Right: Alex Katz: "Impatiens," 2001, oil on can-
vas, 5' x 125" (at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery)