The cavernous lobby of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art is jammed with people, but it is impossible to miss Alex Katz. The artist famous for his bright figurative paintings is standing by the information desk wearing a parka so blindingly orange it looks radioactive. Orange is one of Katz's favorite colors, and the jacket, adorned with reflective silver strips, is the kind that a guy on a road crew might wear to direct traffic in a rainstorm. But this French-made parka is downright chic, rather like its owner, who looks at least a decade younger than his 82 years, with a smooth head (he shaves it daily) and features as sharp as those of the suave figures who populate his paintings.
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He has come to the Met to see an exhibition of works by Pierre Bonnard, the French Post-Impressionist who was a big influence when Katz was starting out. "Bonnard was very important in the early 1950s," Katz says. "His painting was in the same direction as [Jackson] Pollock—away from a contained plane. It was all over light, just light and color." He goes on: "They're great paintings; they have great atmosphere. Bonnard's great with reds and oranges—it is very hard to get transparency with red!"
A maverick from the beginning, Katz came of age when Abstract Expressionism still reigned, yet he turned to painting landscapes and the human figure. Over time, his paintings got bigger. "Appropriating the monumental scale, stark composition and dramatic light of the Abstract Expressionists, he would beat the heroic generation at their own game," the critic Carter Ratcliff wrote in a 2005 monograph on Katz.
"It was an open door," Katz says today. "No one was doing representational painting on a large scale."
Taking cues from Cinemascope movies and billboards, his highly stylized pictures also anticipated Pop Art. His deadpan evocation of flat, bright figures had an everyday quality that linked them to commercial art and popular culture. Early on, his work was often panned. Clement Greenberg, the critic famous for championing the Abstract Expressionists, "actually went out of his way to say how lousy I was," Katz recalled in an article he wrote for the New Criterion.
But critical opinion has never seemed to matter to Katz. "Alex is a man of supreme confidence and clarity," says Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. "He quickly realized what he was about and was absolutely undaunted and single-minded in that pursuit. That persistence enabled him to weather the contradictory movements in the art world."
Today, Katz's popularity is exploding. His quintessentially American evocations of people at cocktail parties or the beach and his landscapes of Maine took off in Europe, especially after the collector Charles Saatchi showed off his Katzes in his private museum in London a decade ago. The painter has also found a substantial new audience at home in the United States. As figurative painting made a comeback in the late '80s and '90s, a younger generation of artists began to see Katz with new appreciation. "Artists were looking at their predecessors, but there were not a lot of them who'd continued in that figurative zone consistently, with his level of detachment," says Weinberg. "Coolness is something that artists of all generations admire—cool in the sense of detachment, but [also] cool in the sense of hip."
Like Warhol before him, Katz has no problem bridging the worlds of art and fashion, whether creating artwork for W magazine or getting supermodels such as Christy Turlington and Kate Moss to sit for him. "I've always been interested in fashion because it's ephemeral," he says. Katz himself even modeled for the J. Crew spring catalog this year.
The stylish octogenarian is, by his own account, as busy as ever. So far this year, Katz has had exhibitions in Milan and Catanzaro in Italy, Paris, Vero Beach in Florida, Finland and at his New York City gallery, PaceWildenstein, where he recently showed a series of monumental sunsets.
"I want to compete with the kids!" he said one afternoon while sitting on a leather sofa in his sparsely furnished SoHo loft, in Manhattan, where he has lived since 1968. Just beyond the living room is his studio, an airy, white-walled space that floods with daylight. There isn't a speckle of paint on the linoleum floor. "I don't like mess," says Katz. "I don't like paint on my clothes or my hands or my furniture."