Alex Katz Is Cooler Than Ever- page 3 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Katz (today, in SoHo) pursued figurative painting even in the 1950s, when Abstract Expressionism was at its height. (Stephanie Sinclair)

Alex Katz Is Cooler Than Ever

At 82, the pathbreaking painter known for stylized figurative works has never been in more demand

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A Katz painting, for all its coolness, projects feeling. "The pictures are supposed to be lyric, they're supposed to give you an up," he says. "I want to make something that's sort of like your happier condition. Impressionist pictures are basically that—Impressionist painting is a happy lie."

Katz's happy lies are those timeless beautiful faces with perfect skin, or the trees of a Maine summer, forever leafy and green.

Yet, sometimes, even the elegant Ada can look grave, on the brink of tears. And the landscapes can be dark—most notably, his haunting "nocturnes" or night scenes, with their nuanced layers of darkness far moodier than so many of the crisp and colorful portraits. In the recent series of sunsets, for example, Katz, in essence, is capturing the passing of time. It was hard to make the oil sketches, he reports—only 15 minutes or so on a Maine porch before dusk fell. In these large paintings, seen together, time passes quickly, and the sky becomes an impossible orange, reflected in the lake. Then, in the next painting, the lake has turned dead, to gray. These pictures, with black trees in the foreground, are elegiac—their subject is the last few minutes of daylight that no one can hang onto.

Luckily, there is consolation, even what Katz calls a kind of eternity, in art itself. "That's the difference between a painting and a sunset," he says. "The painting will stay with you, but the sunset disappears." And so Katz keeps his focus on the moment, painting like there's no tomorrow.

Writer Cathleen McGuigan lives in New York City.
Photographer Stephanie Sinclair is also based in New York.

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