WATERVILLE, Maine — What to make of Alex Katz, the great misfit painter lost between the various houses of American art lo these past seven-plus decades? Very soon, the world can decide for itself. In October, the Guggenheim Museum in New York will open “Alex Katz: Gathering,” his first retrospective in his hometown since a 1986 showing at the Whitney. Until then, we have an appetite-whetter: “Alex Katz: Theater and Dance,” now open at the Colby College Museum of Art, and there until Feb. 19.
Katz, who turned 95 this summer and still paints every day that his stacked schedule allows — the art media has been notably Katz-y in recent months, capped with a long profile in The New York Times’s T magazine in August — surely deserves an award for stick-to-itiveness. (“I do nothing else,” Katz told the art historian Ewa Lajer-Burcharth in an interview for the Guggenheim catalog.)
But endurance is all the more notable in his career, given that he’s spent the entirety of it swimming upstream. Katz has always gone his own way, perpetually devoted to figures and flowers and scenes, like his hero, Henri Matisse. When the American art world tacked sharply into Abstract Expressionism in the early 1950s, Katz, then a recent graduate of Cooper Union in New York, maintained course; when the current shifted toward Pop Art and Conceptualism in the ′60s and ′70s, Katz remained unmoved.
It’s tempting to see him alongside artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, with their bright colors and reinstatement of the human figure in the main of American art, but any such kinship is only on the surface. Where Pop ran parallel to Conceptualism with its critiques of consumerism and junk culture, Katz had no interest in such socially conscious layers; painting was only about painting, the world in front of him committed coolly to canvas.
At Colby — the recipient of nearly 900 works by the artist, a large share given by Katz himself, a summertime Mainer for almost 70 years — the exhibition offers a specific slice of his long career that helps exemplify his against-the-grainness. The show spans six decades of the artist’s engagement with the theater, for which he’s created costumes, sets, and art direction. The stage is a passion that remains undimmed: The show includes work for one of his first theatrical productions, a set of tiny costume sketches for the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s “Junction,” in 1961, and huge, energetic paintings of dancers made just last year.
Katz is nothing if not consistent, and almost unnervingly so: In a big central gallery, the new paintings could be from 1953, or, spirits willing, 2030. One wall features paintings of dancers in motion, fragmented across four canvases; others are makeup studies, dancers’ faces pictured as in a movie close-up. All are classic Katz: detached, pared down, and elemental. The close-ups feel especially primal, the curve of a dancer’s cheek or jaw defined only by the red, green, and pale pink of their makeup, aswim on a ground of purple and inky black.
To call them theatrical feels obvious. But like no other painter I know, Katz creates scenes that, like theater itself, feel simultaneously visceral and contrived. An element of self-conscious performance is always present in his work, an off-kilter intimacy that seduces and creates distance at the same time. His work is subtly, achingly irreconcilable — quotidian but otherworldly, detached but alluring, with a compositional mastery that sets the pictures on an edge between narrative and pure form. I look at a piece like “Paul Taylor,” 2011, the choreographer and Katz’s frequent collaborator, hung in the exhibition’s introductory antechamber, and I wrestle with the artist’s intent. It’s a portrait, full-bodied, adrift in a monochrome field of searing bright orange. It’s Katz to a tee, minimal and intimate all at once.
Katz’s lack of interest in the strictures of the midcentury American painting scene meant an openness to experiment, mashup, collaboration. That might be why he found himself talking to Taylor in 1960. The choreographer, who had recently left the Martha Graham Dance Company, had hired the artist Robert Rauschenberg to do his sets and costumes; a falling out over a production of “Meridian” broke their partnership for good. The dance critic (and common friend) Edwin Denby introduced Taylor to Katz, and Katz came to the rescue.
Over the years, Taylor and Katz would collaborate on 15 productions, Katz providing the visual aura through costume and set in which Taylor’s movement would thrive. Taylor died in 2018, but his company lives on, and many of the pieces they worked on together are in repertoire and regularly restaged. In honor of the Guggenheim show, Lincoln Center in New York will present “Taylor X Katz,” a revival of four of their collaborative works on Nov. 9.
Taylor wasn’t Katz’s only theatrical confrere, but he’s surely his most significant. The show includes performance film of Taylor’s “Junction,” in which eight dancers in bright color-block bodysuits designed by Katz navigate the artist’s minimal set. The piece is spare, visceral, and modern, but set to the baroque strains of Johann Sebastian Bach; the dancers, for all their muscular fluidity, include notes of traditional ballet. Taylor and Katz just matched — modern classicists, pushing into the future with the past in hand.
Not everything here is connected to a specific production; many pieces are stand-alone paintings inspired by the color and form of a dancer’s body or movement. But every piece reinforces the mooring of Katz’s career. When American art abandoned the body in the 1950s, it made sense that Katz might find kinship in a medium like dance, intrinsically tied to the human form.
The creative friction between two expressive media, one static, one dynamic, underpins Katz’s work. “Private Domain” is a Taylor piece that Katz helped conceive with the suggestion the set be designed around blocking that concealed and revealed the dancers’ movement. (It was inspired by observing the many discreet worlds unfolding simultaneously in the apartments across the street from his studio window in New York.)
“Private Domain,” a standout painting in the show from 1969 that’s based on the Taylor piece — dancers at various scales clustered and overlapping against a monochrome ground — is powerful testament to the immediacy of Katz’s work more broadly. It feels performative and constructed, blocked and composed just so, like modern dance itself.
Katz’s work has always centered around intensely deliberate composition: “Pas de Deux,” a monumental series of canvases here from 1983, of formally dressed couples in various entanglements against a pitch-black background, teases with a theatricality that feels seductively, playfully manufactured (the subjects were Katz’s friends, suggestively posed).
This is Katz toying with expectations. Narrative was the domain of realism, a realm to which Katz bears no allegiance. In his theatrical departures, Katz found a drama suited to his intentions: constructed, defined, and finite. Nothing exists offstage; in Alex Katz’s world, there is only here and now.
ALEX KATZ: THEATER AND DANCE
At Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville, Maine. Through Feb. 19. museum.colby.edu, 207-859-5600.
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.