“Alex Katz: Gathering”
In close collaboration with the artist, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum recently opened “Alex Katz: Gathering,” a career retrospective of the famed figurative artist staged in the city where Katz has lived and worked his entire life. The exhibition fills the museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright–designed rotunda and an adjacent Tower Gallery. The show includes paintings, oil sketches, collages, prints, and freestanding “cutout works” and opens with the artist’s intimate sketches of riders on the New York City subway from his student days in the 1940s and culminates in the rapturous and immersive landscapes that have dominated his output in recent years.
Emerging as an artist in the mid-20th century, Katz forged a mode of figurative painting that fused the energy and distillation of Abstract Expressionist canvases with the American vernaculars of the magazine, billboard, and movie screen. He has turned to his direct surroundings in downtown New York City and coastal Maine as his primary subject matter throughout his career, engaging the traditional painterly subjects of portraiture, genre scenes of everyday life, and landscape.
Across eight decades of intense creative production, Alex Katz (b. 1927, Brooklyn, New York) has sought to capture visual experience in the present tense. Katz wrote in 1961 that “Eternity exists in minutes of absolute awareness. Painting, when successful, seems to be a synthetic reflection of this condition.” Whether evoking a glancing exchange between friends or a shaft of light filtered through trees, he has aimed to create a record of “quick things passing,” compressing the flux of everyday life into a vivid burst of optical perception.
Organized by Katherine Brinson, Terra Warren, and Andrea Zambrano, the exhibition’s title, “Gathering,” references James Schuyler’s 1951 poem “Salute” and his evocation of the study of the visible world. The title equally encompasses the expanse of a lifetime of work brought together through a retrospective, playing on the notion of Katz’s sitters gathering within the uniquely open space of the rotunda.
Whether depicting individuals or social groups, Katz’s portraits document an evolving community of poets, artists, dancers, musicians, and critics who have animated a downtown avant-garde since the midcentury, 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. Several portrait subjects recur in the course of the loosely chronological installation, most notably Ada Katz, the accomplished research biologist and Fulbright scholar whom the artist married in 1958 and has depicted over a thousand times since. Described by the poet Frank O’Hara as “a presence and at the same time a pictorial conceit of style,” Ada functions as the iconographic heart of Katz’s work, a subject Katz studied across the arc of their individual lives and his artistic creative development.
The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly catalog, featuring eleven newly commissioned essays by David Breslin, Katherine Brinson, Jennifer Y. Chuong, David Max Horowitz, Arthur Jafa, Katie Kitamura, Wayne Koestenbaum, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Kevin Lotery, Prudence Peiffer, and Levi Prombaum. In addition to an extensive plates section and comprehensive exhibition and publication histories, the book contains a Sourcebook of 36 reviews, texts, and poems from an eminent group of writers who have responded to Katz’s work at different points in his career, cohering into an illuminating document of the artist’s rich and mutable critical reception from the 1950s to the present day.
A series of digital productions will complement the retrospective, including a newly captured and intimate video portrait of the artist at work and an audio guide highlighting observations by Guggenheim curators and notable sitters who appear in Katz’s paintings, including choreographer Bill T. Jones, poet Vincent Katz, composer Meredith Monk, and poet Anne Waldman.
“[Katz is] such an honest person,” shares Monk for the audio guide. “And I think his art has an honesty. And I think his work has a lot of love in it, but it doesn’t have to be explicit. The love is implicit, because he chooses what he loves to paint. [Laughs] You know, that’s the key. His love is in his choice of his subject matter, but he doesn’t have to do anything more than just have it be what it is. And then the love comes through.”
The guide also features a collaboration with the music house West Channel, with original compositions inspired by Katz’s paintings by Rena Anakwe, Peter Bayne, Oli Chang, Elori Saxl, Michael Sempert, and Hoshiko Yamane. Visitors can enjoy a 40-minute version of these pieces while moving through the show.
On October 25 and 26, Works & Process presented the Paul Taylor Dance Company in the Guggenheim for three special performances of “Polaris,” a 1976 collaboration choreographed by Paul Taylor and set and costumes designs by Alex Katz. Selected for the museum’s rotunda by Michael Novak, Paul Taylor Dance Company Artistic Director, these performances of “Polaris” offered audiences a unique and unprecedented opportunity to see Taylor and Katz’s sculptural collaboration—normally performed on a proscenium stage—in the round.
“Alex Katz: Gathering” is on view from through February 20, 2023.