Alex Katz's Maine
Twenty years ago, the painter Alex Katz was asked how future art historians would come to categorize his bright and bold creations. The answer he gave was blunt. "I don't know what art history is going to do," said the longtime Lincolnville summer resident. "And I don't give a damn."
Not giving a damn seems to have paid dividends. Over the past two decades Alex Katz, 78, has indisputably entered the pantheon of major American artists. His distinctive oil paintings, acclaimed as masterpieces of figurative realism, hang in virtually every major public collection in the United States, including the Whitney Museum of American Art.Colby College has devoted an entire wing of its art museum to honoring his achievement.
Brooklyn-born, educated at the Cooper Union, a nearly lifelong fixture of the Manhattan art scene and cosmopolitan to the core, Katz has been called the consummate New Yorker. And he most certainly is. But like many urbanites he has lived a double life of sorts during the summers. In 1949 Katz first came to Maine to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. It was there, he says, that "I found my subject matter and a reason to devote my life to painting." Since 1954 Katz has returned to a farm in Lincolnville each year to rest, recharge, and recalibrate. Over the years, however, recreation gave way to re-creation. "I used to come [to Maine] to open myself up and find new things," Katz has said. "Then I'd develop the new ideas in New York. I don't know but it might have turned itself around now."
Indeed, the role Maine has played in firing his imagination is sizeable, and a major retrospective this summer at the Farnsworth Museum of Art in Rockland provides the proof. On display from July 2 to October 16, Alex Katz in Maine spans the years from 1958 through 2004 and showcases the distinctive style - flat, bright, featuring figures that seem at once glamorized and generalized - that made the artist's reputation.
Critics have argued for decades whether to call Katz a precursor of the Pop Art movement or a new realist in the mode of Fairfield Porter and Katz's late friend Neil Welliver. It's an esoteric debate that art historians are sure to continue. For Maine art lovers all that matters is that these wonderful paintings, whatever the critics call them, are certainly worth a damn.