The Single Detail That Changed My Mind About Alex Katz

Alex Katz, “Round Hill” (1977), oil on linen, 71 inches x 96 inches (© 2022 Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Barry and Julie Smooke)

When Vincent van Gogh said that his “The Night Cafe”(1888) shows “a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime,” he indicated that his paintings dig beneath the surface, that they can reveal what’s hidden.

It’s hard to imagine a painter less like van Gogh than Alex Katz, whose work is all about staying on the surface. Gathering, which fills the Guggenheim’s ramps and two of the side galleries, is a comprehensive survey of his six decades of art making. “Ella Marion in Red Sweater” (1946) and the subway drawings from the late 1940s are modest, surprisingly subdued pieces. But by the 1950s Katz found himself in landscapes like “Pink Sky” (1955), with its intense pale greens and pink. And soon enough, as in “10 AM” (1959), he discovered his signature portrait style of large, flat figures on the surface of monochromatic backgrounds.

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