Body of Works: Colby’s Exhibition Shows the Influence of the Performing Arts on Painter Alex Katz


Women walk past Alex Katz’s ‘Pas de Deus’ at the Colby Museum of Art in Waterville. The museum presents the first complete works of Katz in his collaboration with theater and dance artists, dating back several decades. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer

WATERVILLE — It’s a strange thing to say about an artist who has been exhibited in museums and galleries since the Truman administration, but Alex Katz is having a moment.

The 95-year-old New York painter, best known for his figurative portraits and vividly colored landscapes (not to mention his creative longevity), has been featured in more than 10 solo and group exhibitions in the past two years alone. He gets the retrospective treatment with “Alex Katz: Gathering” at the Guggenheim in Manhattan, which opened last week.

But Katz, who has been coming to Maine since attending the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture, also has an exhibit closer to his summer home on the Midcoast.

“Alex Katz: Theater and Dance” opened at the Colby College Museum of Art in August and will run through February. Admission to the museum is free.

Colby already has one of the largest collections of Katz’s work – some 900 pieces, most donated by the artist – but this is the first time the museum (or any museum) has concentrated an exhibition on his collaborations with theater and dance production companies. and Paul Taylor, in particular. Taylor founded a modern dance company in New York City in the mid-1950s, around the time Katz’s career began to take shape. The company still produces original works today, although Taylor died in 2018.

The Colby exhibit includes a range of large-scale paintings – some dating back decades, others created more recently – that capture the movements of Taylor’s choreography (and others too) in Katz’s distinctive visual style.

A 1977 painting titled “Song” depicts six dancers on a stage. Each has a hand stretched above their head and appears to be spinning. Each wears a plain red shirt, pink pants, and red shoes. The background is also a mixture of red and pink, creating a warmth that contrasts with the solemn expression of the faces.

Jacqueline Terrassa, director of the Colby Museum of Art. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer

“No one had ever presented in depth their collaboration with theater and dance artists,” said Colby Museum director Jacqueline Terrassa. “The relationship between performance and his work had not been addressed, yet it has been such a deeply important part of his practice from the beginning until now.”

Terrassa also said the Katz exhibit schedule also allows Colby to highlight the opening next year of the Gordon Center for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Katz’s artistic career has been built around drawing characters from life – his 64-year-old wife, Ada, has been a frequent subject – and the time he spent working with Taylor designing sets and scenes. costumes provided inspiration that continued long after their partnership ended. He regularly invited dancers to model in his studio.

“The paintings are collaborative in the sense that all of your friends contribute to the paintings, and the thing with Paul Taylor was an extension of what was happening in the studio,” Katz said in an email response to questions about the exposure. “When you have the dance, the music, and the sets together, and you hit it, there’s more energy than you get from a painting.”


Katz was born in 1927 to Russian immigrants who fled during the Soviet revolution and settled in New York. He grew up in Queens.

He attended Cooper Union School of Art near his home, then ventured to northern Maine, where he studied in 1949 and 1950 at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a residence of artists who had only opened a few years earlier.

It was here that Katz explored life painting and plein air painting, departing from the trending styles of modernism and abstract expressionism, and later pop art, which dominated the new art scene. yorker. He would often employ both of these practices in the decades that followed.

Artist Alex Katz, who lives in New York but spends part of the year in Maine, pictured in 2021. Photo by Isaac Katz

It also sparked his love for Maine.

Although he returned to New York, Katz reserved his summers for Maine beginning in 1954, the same year of his first solo exhibition at Manhattan’s Roko Gallery. He bought a 19th-century farmhouse in Lincolnville, a quiet Midcoast town north of Camden, and owns a studio there.

One of Katz’s first mentors in Maine was Willard Cummings, one of the founders of the Skowhegan school. Cummings was a close friend of Hugh Gourley, who at the time was director of the Colby College Art Museum.

“They got a warm welcome for the job, and it just kept growing,” Katz explained. “It was something organic. This allowed me to expose my work to the public.

Over the years, Katz has donated hundreds of coins to the college. In 1996, following a donation from former students Paul Schupf who had an extensive collection of Katz paintings, the museum opened a new wing which became a permanent home for his work.

Katz became more philanthropic in his later years. In 2004, he created the Alex Katz Foundation to grant scholarships to young artists and buy pieces that are then donated to museums. He said the impetus for the foundation came from his own memories of being a struggling young artist.

“The good thing about America is that the government doesn’t care what artists do,” he said. “The bad part of the United States is that they don’t support them either.

“Three years out of art school, it seems to be getting tough, and I struggled to support myself in my late twenties and early thirties. If you buy a painting, you’re encouraging the artist to continue.

“George Washington Crossing the Delaware: Burning Logs 2,” 1968, left, and “Set Pieces for Diggity,” 1978, by Alex Katz on display at the Colby Museum of Art in Waterville. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer


On a weekday last month, Levi Prombaum offered a tour of Katz’s exhibit. Prombaum is the consulting curator at Colby’s Katz, and he worked closely with Rob Storr, a prominent curator, art critic and dean of the Yale School of Art, on the exhibit.

“I think this exhibition tells the story of his painting from a new angle. It’s so different from the others,” Prombaum said.

It’s a tough thing to pull off for an artist who has been the subject of more than 250 solo shows and nearly 500 group shows in his 70+ year career.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s in New York, Katz was establishing himself as an artist in the second generation of the New York School, an informal collective of writers, musicians, performers and artists whose work was often avant-garde.

Katz and his wife were particularly interested in theater and dance.

“The story goes that Alex is a wonderful dancer, but his wife is even better,” Prombaum said.

He met Paul Taylor, a virtuoso dancer and choreographer at the time, and, somewhat by chance, began designing sets and costumes for his productions. One of his original scenographies is included in the Colby exhibit.

Also included are examples of his cutouts – two-dimensional sculptures that informed his view of the scene.

In 40 years, Katz and Taylor have collaborated more than a dozen times. He has also worked with other dance and theater companies – Yoshiko Chuma, Laura Dean, William Dunas and Parsons Dance. Together they provided Katz with inspiration that bled into his painting.

A distinctive element of Katz’s work has always been intimacy. The paintings are large and often enlarged on faces or hands. There is almost always an implied movement. They are more realistic than abstract, although the vibrant colors put the painting somewhere in between.

Long after he had ceased working on sets and costumes, Katz continued to paint dancers. In fact, some of the paintings in the Colby exhibit were done in the last few years.

“He is prolific, of course, but what surprises me is the extent to which he always challenges himself to try something new, even when he revisits themes from the past,” said Terrassa, director of the Colby Museum. “He doesn’t want to be bored, and there’s a boldness to recent work.”

When asked how he continues to find motivation at his age, Katz had a pragmatic response.

“One body of work naturally leads to another,” he said.

Works by Alex Katz, left to right, ‘Song’, Laura Dean Dance Co., 1977, ‘Dancer Triptych’, 2011 and ‘Christopher and Kate’, 1984, on display at the Colby Museum of Art in Waterville. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer

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