Grandfather of Pop Art explores ‘elegance’ of black and white

The exhibit “Alex Katz: Black and White” will be on display at the American University Museum through Dec. 18. Photos by Gregory Staley
The exhibit “Alex Katz: Black and White” will be on display at the American University Museum through Dec. 18. Photos by Gregory Staley

One aspect of being a prolific artist with works dating back more than six decades is that such an artist may not hold back in describing his place in art history.

Alex Katz, 89, has called himself a precursor of Pop Art — and although he isn’t angry at Andy Warhol, he recently told SF Weekly, a San Francisco-based publication, that Warhol “stole” his idea of making a painting by repeating images.

He was similarly direct in describing “Alex Katz: Black and White,” his exhibit on display at American University, saying “You’ve never seen anything like some of these objects.”

Part of what makes these pieces unique is that Katz’s paintings and prints have historically used vivid color. He is coming off a solo exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and has had more than 200 solo shows, including seven this year. Such an expansive career has allowed him to explore very different areas, including portraits, landscapes and more abstract pieces — and now black and white.

Katz described his desire to mount a black and white exhibit in simple terms, referring to the “elegance” that comes with working with just the two colors. “Elegance is one of the prime factors in what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s a style.”

One of the most striking pieces is in the exhibit is “Shoppers.” Mounted directly on an exhibition wall and extending from floor to ceiling, this silkscreen displays glamorous women from the waist up. The piece was originally shown in the display windows of the upscale apparel store Barneys in New York City. Katz again described his motivations for the piece in a straightforward way.

“I was trying to make something interesting,” he said. “No one’s seen anything like it.”

Another memorable piece is his silkscreen “Ariel,” which shows a woman in a bathing suit posing with a hat. The version on display at American University has a black background, but Katz has previously displayed a 26-color version of the same piece with a warm orange-red background.

“The color piece was something everyone could get. It was very successful,” he said. “It was suggested that I try to do it in black and white, so I did. The black and white print is more elegant and for a much

smaller audience.”
Born in 1927 in New York, Katz grew up in Queens in a Russian-Jewish family. He said he had no religious background, joking that his parents “weren’t even atheists; they were too lazy for that.” Still, Katz said that he connects to the idea of being culturally Jewish, describing how some Jews left behind religion and went right into “heavy culture” upon immigrating to the United States.

“To become an artist in my family was highly regarded, and I think that was due to my cultural heritage,” he said.

After attending the Cooper Union Art School in Manhattan, Katz had his first solo show in New York in 1954 and was part of the New York School, an informal group of poets, painters and musicians who drew inspiration from surrealism and avant-garde art movements.

Throughout his career, Katz has explored different media and subjects.

In the 1960s, he became known for print-making and large-scale paintings often of figures. In the late 1980s and 1990s Katz turned to large landscape paintings.

Katz said that one challenge he faces in all of his black and white pieces is bringing light into the work. “Another challenge is to make printmaking something simple again,” he said. “Printmaking has gotten very complex.”

In the AU exhibit, Katz faced these obstacles in a series of portraits of women that shows 11 women smiling in different ways in front of black backgrounds.

The exhibit also contains a very different portrait, Katz’s 1979 11-color lithography “Gray Umbrella,” which depicts a bundled-up woman standing in the rain with an umbrella. Katz described the piece as a “romance image” and said the umbrella in the piece relates to Japanese art.

The exhibit will be on display at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center through Dec. 18. Katz will give a gallery talk Dec. 3 at 5:30 p.m.

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