A happy 80th birthday to Alex Katz, born on this date in 1927. Katz brought his unique figurative style to Pop Art and continues to paint fascinating portraits in a style that seems to mix the worlds of illustration and advertising, perhaps to comment on the surface-obsessed nature of late 20th and early 21st century America. In his 1962 self-portrait above, titled Passing, Katz plays with the nature of identity on several levels. On one level, Katz the artist disguises himself as a typical businessman of the early 1960s, the standard issue man in the grey flannel suit. However, Katz perches on his head a pork pie hat, often identified with the jazz artist Lester Young, one of Katz’s many beloved jazz musicians, indicating that beneath this “white” exterior beats the heart of a jazz insider. Finally, Katz’s Jewish heritage raises the issue of the religious and racial intolerance still existing in 1960s, Eisenhower-era America behind the Happy Days façade. Katz smuggles his true nature through all the barriers put in his way. Often criticized for paintings that are all surface, Katz’s work delves deep into American society and, along with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, speaks on the “lower frequencies” for us all.
Much of Katz’s examination of America involves trends, particularly the current fashions in clothing and hairstyles. In the paintings of his wife Ada done over the years, including Upside Down Ada (above) from 1965, we see how trends come and go, including the longer, freer hairstyle shown in this post-Kennedy, post-Beatles invasion, yet pre-Woodstock image. Katz’s surface-dominated paintings show just how shallow these trends are, in comparison to the people behind them.
Despite the Pop Art technique of his portraits, I always sense a great warmth and affection in Katz’s paintings of his family, especially those of his wife, Ada, and his children, such as his son Vincent (above) in Vincent with Open Mouth, from 1970. Katz’s focus on the small detail of his child’s open mouth, indicating youth’s still-intact capacity for wonder, stands in opposition to the jaded views of other modern artists. Throughout his exploration of the trends of American society Katz never descends into sarcasm or ridicule, choosing instead to subtly comment on society and reward those who look beneath the surface.