A Katz-led 'Looking at Art'

By Dagney C. Ernest | Oct 31, 2018
Colby College Museum of Art’s Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz is showcase for the work of the acclaimed artist, a longtime summer resident of Lincolnville.

As anyone who knows — or who attended a talk by or read a profile of (The New Yorker had a big one this summer) — artist Alex Katz will bear witness, he has opinions as concise and clearly defined as his is-it-Modernist-or-no artworks.

A just-published book, “Looking at Art with Alex Katz,” gathers his conclusions about some 90 artists (mostly) and writers. The publisher, London-based Laurence King, describes it as “your own private museum tour with one of the world’s most-celebrated artists.” Said artist is more matter of fact.

“I thought it would be interesting to people to get informed about some really good artists,” he said by phone from his Manhattan home.

In the summer months, Katz and his wife of 60 years, Ada (you know her if you’ve seen his work), live in the home he has owned for decades on Coleman Pond in Lincolnville. The 91-year-old takes daily swims and, as he does in his New York studio, paints every day.

The new book had its origins in an autobiography Katz wrote 20 years ago, a couple of years after the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville opened the Paul J. Schupf Gallery for the Works of Alex Katz.

“I had a book published, a big biography of me, and I put in some more,” he said, referring to 2012’s “Invented Symbols: An Art Autobiography.” “And then we had just about enough for a book.”

“Looking at Art with Alex Katz” runs alphabetically, offering color plates and Katz’s comments on artists and works from Fra Angelico to Frank Lloyd Wright. Actually, the very first entry — a photograph of Chauvet Cave paintings — is offered on its own. Another ancient work, a bust of Nefertiti, represents second-century sculptor Thutmose, whom Katz declares would be his choice “If I had to choose one artist.”

Many of the entries in this very personal art history survey reflect similarly strong gut feelings. Albert Pinker Ryder, Katz writes, is “the most complete American painter of his time,” while Chaim Soutine is “the most interesting French painter” of his time. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling “… is a big colored drawing,” as opposed to Goya’s in San Antonio de la Florida, which is “… real painting.”

Other entries are more academic and almost dispassionate. And there may be a logical reason for this.

“They [the publishers] suggested some, so it ended up being somewhat collaborative,” said Katz. “But most of them I had in mind, to be honest.”

A couple of weeks ago, a solo show of Katz’s work from the 1950s concluded a several years’ tour. It had originated in 2015 at Colby and its title, “Brand-New & Terrific,” fits right in with the artist’s lingo describing the works and artists he admires most. Francis Bacon’s “early 1950s paintings are dynamite.” Joe Brainard’s “book covers and illustrations are tops.” Jacques-Louis David “is Mr. Neo-classicism.” That Fra Angelico “can really paint.” And “Frank O’Hara is my hero.” O’Hara’s entry, which includes a Maine-set poem, is one of several for writers illustrated by a Katz work.

Other entries’ declarations display some ambivalence. Jasper Johns “was the most aggressive stylist of his time.” Fernand Léger “was a great mechanic.” Sandro Chia “was the number one in a pizza-house style,” writes Katz. “He brought art to the masses. Then he refined the work, and it became coffee house, which is less engaging.”

Throughout, Katz engages in discussion of painting techniques, surface effects and the differences among illustration, decoration, image-making and painting. The latter he sums up in his comments on Da Vinci.

“With image-making, the idea is to assemble details and facts into an image that may not be lifelike, but is plausible,” he writes. “I prefer image-making to painting, when it comes down to it.”

Some of the entries serve as mini-memoirs, as commentary on a painter or writer includes Katz’s personal experiences with him or her. In regard to Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture co-founder Willard Cummings, Katz reminisces about painting in Maine, renting lofts in New York and a remark at Toronto’s Marlborough Godard Gallery in 1974 that still cuts him to the bone. His memories are paired with a Cummings oil portrait of Bette Davis that is in the collection of the Colby Museum of Art.

Getting permission from Colby to reproduce an artwork by one of its benefactors must have been a piece of cake compared to securing rights to many of the wonderful works in “Looking at Art with Alex Katz.”

“Well,” said Katz, "that wasn’t my problem.”

On Jan. 29, Katz will be hosted by art historian, writer and New Yorker contributor Calvin Tomkins; and author, Vogue contributing editor and New Yorker contributor Dodie Kazanjian at New York City’s famed 92nd St. Y for a 92Y Talk in Buttenweiser Hall. They will chat about art and artists through the lens of history, fashion and aesthetics, according to the Y. Katz will surely lead the way.

“Art doesn’t progress,” he writes in the book’s Introduction,” “it just changes, like fashion in clothes or music. There is no progress in art, only change.”

For more information about “Looking at Art with Alex Katz,” visit laurenceking.com. Admission to the Colby College Museum of Art, whose Alex Katz Collection now includes nearly 900 Katz works, is free. For more information, visit colby.edu/museum.

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Staff Profile

Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional for more than 30 years; and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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