As one of America’s most important and innovative post-war painters, Alex Katz reinvigorated portraiture in an era when non-representational abstraction dominated the art world. Maxine, a striking example of Katz’s signature figure paintings, portrays an elegant brunette in a bright pink blouse, leaning back onto a beige sofa, head on hand. Through the sprawling window behind her, a luminous sunset casts a warm citrus glow over the New York cityscape and across the modern interior. With an air of serenity, the lounging woman has an enigmatic expression, distant, cool and detached, archetypal of Katz’s figures. Emerging in the 1940s and 1950s, Katz resisted the Modernist dogma and instead invented new forms of figuration that represented everyday moments from his own life. Embracing the cultural vernacular, the artist painted family members and friends with views of New York, often his immediate surroundings in lower Manhattan, propelling them into the echelons of fine art.
Katz is often referred to as a quintessential American painter for his direct visual vocabulary. Despite growing up in the New York art world of the 1950s, he resisted the dominant stylistic conventions of the period – Cubism, Bauhaus design, and most notably Abstract Expressionism – and in its place championed figuration. Forgoing Modernist abstraction, Katz was fascinated with the technical side of fine art, namely painting and drawing, and looked to Paul Klee, Pierre Bonnard and especially Henri Matisse for inspiration. In 1949, Katz studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, where the traditional plein-air teacher exposed Katz to painting directly from life. Combining moments from his everyday life and a commitment to figuration, Katz developed a new way to paint portraits using bold simplicity and heightened colors. In Maxine, Katz’s flatness of color and form has an aura of emotional detachment. Maxine’s face is smooth and plain, devoid of expression, while the background is captivatingly minimal, drawing attention to form and composition.
Stretching 72 inches wide, Maxine resembles the panoramic billboards and cinema screens that influenced the artist in the 1960s. The television had a great impact on Katz in this period, particularly the monumental scale of the cinema screen and the great attention to the surface of the picture it possessed. Katz began to render large-scale paintings of daringly cropped faces, inspired by film, movie closeups, and billboard advertising. These striking and candid expansive paintings range from long shots of full-figures to close up images, completed in his signature style of bright colors, graphic lines, and bold flat areas, that embody a Pop aesthetic. For Maxine, Katz inverts this public dimension of vast simplified images to represent an interior private space. The work is paramount of Katz’s mature style and sophisticated employment of smooth and determined crisp lines and articulated planes of color that depict tranquil and distinctly everyday subject matter. He creates this effect by moving away from direct painting and employing the Renaissance technique of pinning pinning paper to the canvas, and forcing dry pigment through pinholes to create an outline. Once the preparatory drawing is transferred, Katz has a wet on wet painting technique that forces him to create each work in a single session. Katz brilliantly revives this obsolete technique of the past to create a terrific contemporary effect.
For Katz, style is the primary element in his figure paintings. Maxine offers a clear composition with all extraneous details stripped away, leaving only the most vital. Although details are pared down, Katz’s work possesses a nature of individuality. Maxine, the muse for the painting, sits by a window that opens out onto New York’s skyline. With an air of tranquility and calm, she has an enigmatic introspection that is partly created by her leaning, head on hand, back onto the beige couch, and through being only figure in the work. The woman is alone looking out onto the painting’s spectator, creating a relationship between the viewer and painted subject. Katz employs this relationship though an ambiguity of expression – Maxine’s face is dreamy and impassive with an averted gaze, stimulating the viewer to read her. Katz’s unique style strips the image of psychological engagement, biography, iconography, attraction, emotion – any context – producing a detached image that delicately balances abstraction and figuration.
Rather than focusing on Maxine’s age, gender, expression or time period, Katz emphasizes the internal dynamics and formal complexities of the painting. The artist eliminates surface details to emphasize broader structures, and scale, geometry of the window, and saturated colors become paramount in the composition. In Maxine, Katz plays with the architectural linearity next to the figure’s body. The strong verticals and horizontal bars of the window and the iconic Twin Towers echo Mondrian’s grid and Russian Constructivism. Against this geometric plane, Katz juxtaposes a leaning woman, whose body forms a curved diagonal across the surface, and whose face, pink blouse, and flowing hair were created with lyrical shapes and strokes.
In the lineage of art history, Katz’s portrait paintings pay homage to Impressionist and Modern Masters, especially Matisse, whom the artist considered his idol for his bold areas of color and graphic outlines. Katz drew on genre paintings, or paintings of ordinary life, championed by Impressionist and Modernist artists. Maxine, depicting a woman in a domestic interior engaged in mundane introspection, recalls Impressionist works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot. Katz also captures the artistic devices of Henri Matisse’s Fauvist style that emphasizes color planes, bold and high-keyed colors. Matisse employed this style to dynamically render women lounging on sofas or beds in colorful pattern-filled interiors in the early 20th century. Katz’s Maxine cleverly references his Modernist predecessors in rendering contemporary women and moments from everyday life.