Look up, look down, look sideways from the spiraling ramps at the Guggenheim, where the new show, “Alex Katz: Gathering,” celebrates the Brooklyn-born artist’s prolific career, some 80 years and still counting. He’s 95.
An early viewing on October 26 revealed a mammoth open cube in the rotunda, a stage set designed by Katz for “Polaris” (1976), a dance choreographed by the late Paul Taylor and performed that evening by members of his company to an appreciative audience that filled the ground level and lined the ramps. Works & Process, an organization that offers artists a platform to showcase and discuss their creative output, presented the program, which allowed dancegoers to see the piece in the round and not up on a stage.
Taylor and Katz, who designed costumes and sets for the modern dance choreographer for four decades, famously collaborated on 16 works. Several are being performed at Lincoln Center from November 1-13 to complement the Guggenheim’s exploration of Katz’s artistic practice.
Begin at the bottom for a mostly chronological journey up the spiral that concludes in an off-ramp gallery filled with immersive, largely abstract landscapes (“Ocean 9,” 2022), a focus of the painter in recent years. But anyone even vaguely familiar with Katz’s oeuvre knows that he embraced figuration in the 20th century and painted big, bold portraits of his friends and family, while never aligning himself with a particular style or school of art. He painted what he wanted to, in the way that he wanted to.
Here and Now
In his human subjects, he looked not for psychological insight as much as an immediate impression — how they appeared at a particular moment in time. He sought to capture gestures and expressions, little black dresses and headscarves, to tell their story.
In his landscapes, he wanted to record immediate sensory effects, that first “blast” of experience, as he termed it. Because he was interested in the here and now — “visual experience in the present tense,” the wall text states. He called it “quick things passing,” like the hint of a smile or light hitting water.
His paintings are luminous, bathed in light, a palpable presence in the works. In his portraits, he used cropping and close-ups, inspired by billboards and mid-century images of starlets on movie screens and in magazines, to create stylish tableaux. His favorite subject, hands down, was his wife of more than 60 years, Ada Del Moro, a talented research biologist whom he met at a gallery opening in the city in 1957.
His muse, Ada was the face that launched a thousand pictures (more actually). And she launches the exhibit here, on the ground floor, where Katz’s iconic “Blue Umbrella 2” (1972) — picturing his wife in pink lipstick and kerchief, channeling a Hollywood film star —telegraphs the dynamism to come.
The Cool Kids
Katz is a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn in 1927 and raised in St. Albans, Queens. He studied art at Cooper Union in the East Village and has spent his entire life in Maine and the city, where he was a notable part of the downtown arts community.
His friends — who became his subjects — were the cool kids dangling cigarettes and sipping cocktails. They were avant-garde painters, poets, writers, dancers, musicians and critics, like Frank O’Hara, Meredith Monk, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Joe Brainard, John Ashbery, Robert Rauschenberg, Mariko Mori and, of course, Paul Taylor (“Paul Taylor,” 1959; “Paul Taylor Dance Company,” 1963-1964).
Two summer residencies at the Scowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in rural Maine, in 1949 and 1950, led to a lifelong engagement with the natural landscape of the state, where he owns a yellow farmhouse in the coastal village of Lincolnville and paints scenes, like the thickly wooded “Crosslight” (2019).
One distinctive feature of his work is his use of doubles and repetitive imagery, rather like a cameraman who keeps shooting a subject in order to capture successive gestures and postures, some very subtle (“Ada Ada,” 1959; “Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg,” 1959). “The Black Dress” (1960) features six Adas in cocktail attire splayed across the canvas — sitting, standing, arms folded, hands folded, arms behind her back — “as if different moments are being captured simultaneously,” the exhibit label states. It’s a visual flash that reads like cinema, though there is no overall narrative.
Katz’s freestanding cutout figures, his equivalent of sculpture, are sprinkled here and there on the ramps. Walk around them, compare the front to the back because sometimes he plays tricks and things don’t match up, like those arms in “Francesco” (1992; painter Francesco Clemente). But he wants to create a dynamic whole, to create a sense of movement and energy by freeing the figures from the canvas and allowing them to stand on their own.
Some of the cutouts represent full figures, while others are severely cropped — just heads — or even cut up and presented in slices. “Allen Ginsberg” (1985) is a face in six parts. Per the label, “the work’s radical cropping reflects the shifts in intensity experienced in a personal encounter.”
The show’s title, “Gathering,” references a 1951 poem by his friend James Schuyler, “Salute,” which imagines a gathering of flowers. Here gathered are artworks and the people and places that animated them.