Alex Katz, one of the most distinctive painters in America, turned 85 years old this week. His style is now immediately recognizable: flat, minimal, large, and—usually—bright. While Katz has tackled a variety of subjects and media in his long career, his work has retained many of the same qualities since his first solo exhibition in 1954, which is why this selection from his student years at Cooper Union proves so fascinating.
These small gouaches on paper from 1948-1949 illustrating popular folk songs offer a glimpse of the artist in development. Many of the elements that would become Katz’s signature style are already in place, but we find unexpected hints of influence by American painters Ben Shahn and Stuart Davis.
Not long after finishing these works, Katz began painting from life during a summer at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine, adding one more of the key elements that led to his mature work.
These images—from a series of nine gouaches—come to us from the collection of the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine. Since 1954, Katz has spent his summers in a 19th-century clapboard farmhouse in neighboring Lincolnville, and he has developed a close relationship with the school, which has devoted a 10,000-square-foot wing to his work, of which they own more than 760 pieces, most of them accessible in the Artstor Digital Library.