Why is all of this important? The essay appears in the middle of a year where another figurative artist long discounted as more of a character or cultural figure from a specific moment in late Sixties, David Hockney, has experienced a vertiginous rise in fame, critical appreciation and market value. Hockney’s market is about to move up another order of magnitude this Autumn.
With that as a background, it is worth reading Tomkins’s New Yorker essay and think more about Katz. Here’s Tomkins after seeing Colby’s current exhibition:
The exhibition struck me as a compelling argument for the great, revelatory New York retrospective that Katz wants and deserves—and should have while he’s still around, but probably won’t. Katz wastes no time in being bitter. “He knows who he is,” Gavin Brown had told me. “As he said the other day, ‘I’m alive, and in my studio every day, and people buy my paintings. I just want to keep throwing the dice against the wall.’ ”
Perhaps more to the point, Katz himself has seen his moment to break come and go over the years as Tomkins illustrates:
There have always been people who disliked his work. The Times critic Hilton Kramer, despite his frequent praise, questioned its “emotional vacancy” and “air of untroubled sociability.” Robert Hughes, in Time, called Katz the Norman Rockwell of the intelligentsia, which was odd—the art-world intellectuals who wrote for October and the academic quarterlies consistently ignored him. Others found the paintings not just cool but cold, or took issue with their increasingly monumental size. Katz’s work had started to get attention in the late fifties. For a brief period he felt he was “on the bubble,” as he said, meaning ahead of just about everyone else. A 1959 solo show at the Tanager Gallery, which featured his portraits with at backgrounds, had been a financial failure but a critical success. At the opening, de Kooning, whom Katz knew only slightly, came over to tell him that he liked the paintings. (“He said I shouldn’t let people knock me out of my position.”) Rauschenberg and Johns took him to dinner, and Rauschenberg posed for a Katz portrait—a double image of the artist, seated. […]
When Pop art made its sensational début, Katz’s paintings, with their bold areas of color and closeup aggressiveness, seemed at first to be related to it, but there was no real connection—popular culture has never been his subject. Katz was not included in the game-changing 1962 “New Realists” show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, or in Henry Geldzahler’s “New York Painting and Sculpture” show at the Met, in 1969. Leo Castelli, who showed Rauschenberg, Johns, Frank Stella, and several of the Pop artists, visited Katz’s studio, but didn’t take him on. When Katz saw Roy Lichtenstein’s new paintings at the Castelli Gallery, he said to himself, “ ‘Alex, you’re no longer on the bubble.’ It was absolutely clear to me.” Lichtenstein’s comic-strip images and blown-up commercial ads made Pop a household term. Right behind Pop came minimal art and conceptual art, and appropriation and performance and video and the myriad varieties of postmodernism, none of which had much, or anything, to do with the craft-based work that Katz was doing. “Minimalism was excluding things, but my work was compression,” he told me one day. […]
Into the nineties and beyond, Katz found fresh subjects to explore: light falling through trees, or on fields of flowers; dancers and performers whose personal style or way of moving caught his eye. The European market for his work expanded dramatically in the late eighties. Younger artists, riding a new wave of figure painting by German and American neo-expressionists (Sigmar Polke, A. R. Penck, Julian Schnabel, David Salle), discovered Katz’s work and recognized him as an ally. As the painter Jacqueline Humphries wrote to me recently, “I see in Alex’s work so much of what I love in Manet: immediacy, grandeur, plus the keen, urbane and candid assessment of subject.” Shara Hughes, an artist who is in her mid-thirties, said, “He does it right. At first, I thought he was boring, until I realized how hard it is to be that simple. Now I look at it all the time.” I asked Katz if it felt like he was back on the bubble. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I bounced twice. Matisse did that with his late cutouts, but Picasso didn’t. Listen, one bubble is miraculous.”
Alex Katz’s Life in Art (New Yorker)