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A Closer Look: Alex Katz

Hiroshi, 1979

Hiroshi, 1979

Hiroshi and Marcia, 1981, Oil on canvas, Tate Modern, London

Hiroshi and Marcia, 1981, Oil on canvas, Tate Modern, London

Alex Katz is often considered the leading modern portraitist of the second half of the 20th century. In Hiroshi, 1979 Katz combines his lifelong approach to depicting friends and family with his enigmatic technique and style.

As his subjects were overwhelmingly friends and colleagues, the artist's primary muse was his wife, Ada. The present work however is a portrait of Hiroshi Kawanishi, a silkscreen printer and artist whom Katz knew well. Featured more than once in the artist's work, Hiroshi also appears accompanied by his wife Marcia in the Tate Modern's Hiroshi and Marcia, 1981.

Stylistically, it was in the 1950s that Katz began his singular mode of portraiture – aiming for increased scale, depth and ultimately a greater sense of realism than previously. Shifting toward a monochrome palette for backgrounds, with a technique approaching color blocking (not unlike post-painterly abstract artists painting in the decade before the present work), the artist's path diverged from his predecessors who experimented with gestural figuration and action painting as his work became succinctly realist.

Jasper Johns with Hiroshi Kawanishi February 8, 1980

Photographs © Katy Martin 2022

Jasper Johns with Hiroshi Kawanishi February 8, 1980

Photographs © Katy Martin 2022

Hiroshi (Cartoon), 1979
Charcoal and ochre chalk on brown wove paper
Private collection

 

Hiroshi (Cartoon), 1979
Charcoal and ochre chalk on brown wove paper
Private collection

 

 

The artist's peculiar positioning between two of the century's most iconic movements, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, allowed for unique and shared influences that became more apparent when considering his oeuvre in its entirety. In fact, it was film, television, and prominent billboard advertising that would most immediately influence the artist's portraiture, as his style evolved to a point where his subjects would not only soak up the entire composition, but grew to dominate and eclipse the picture plane. This dramatic style of cropping, intentionally disregarding the figure's edges, echoed filmographic styles that were then in fashion, capturing individual moments of life as if seen through a viewfinder for a fleeting moment.

Hiroshi, 1977, Sculpture
Museum Brandhorst, Alex Katz, December 6, 2018 – April 22, 2019

Hiroshi, 1977, Sculpture
Museum Brandhorst, Alex Katz, December 6, 2018 – April 22, 2019

In the 2010s, the artist revisited his style of portraiture with even more intentional cropping to the degree that mimics the sensation of viewing film in slow motion. The viewer is able to observe action in an unseen way, moment by moment, following the age-old art historical pursuit of capturing subjects in motion.

Realist painting has to do with leaving out a lot of detail. I think my painting can be a little shocking in all that it leaves out. But what happens is that the mind fills in what's missing . . . Painting is a way of making you see what I saw.

- Alex Katz

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Alex Katz (b. 1927)

Hiroshi, 1979
Oil on canvas
48 by 36 inches (121.9 x 91.4 cm)

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