Summer Days Drifting Away


Nothing truly says summer like an Alex Katz exhibition and it is only fitting that “Brand New and Terrific” at the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, NY, should end as the cold snap begins. Goodbye to the casual style of slung jackets and white tennis shoes in “After Softball”, 1953 and the relaxed mode of “Lincolnville Beach”, 1956.

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Image result for lincolnville beach alex katzLincolnville Beach, 1956

Though this exhibition concentrates on his early work and precedes his more well-known  Blue Umbrella and crisp, bolder palettes, it confidently displays the evolution of Alex Katz’s style. And style, it seems, is everything to Katz.

Influenced by the advertising posters of the fifties and sixties, there is something iconic about Katz’s work, despite it not fitting in exactly to any genre. “I never fit in,” he told The New Yorker,  “I’m not a Pop artist, and people can’t see my work as realistic, either.” Like Warhol, Katz is fascinated by fashion and many of his paintings reflect a seemingly country club set though Katz states “Most of my paintings are of poor poets and painters. So why the perception that he paints only privilege and prosperity? He shrugs. “I record whatever’s in front of me,” he replies. “It’s the style that’s fancy” and he mentions that his fashion interest derives from memories of his immaculately dressed father.

The flatness of his work suggests a certain confidence and detachment, as well as an abstraction. Here these early works are presented as an exercise in reduction. Despite his work bridging modernism and the dominating Abstract Expressionism of the period, it can also be seen as one of the precursors of Pop Art. Indeed, in an interview Katz proclaims  ” Warhol ripped me off”. Despite Warhol focusing on everyday objects, Katz’s subjects were objectified in their detachment.


By depicting two figures in Clamdiggers at Ducktrap (1956), above, and a repeated figure in Double Portrait of Rauschenberg (1959), below, Katz paid homage to choreographed composition, possibly referencing their contemporary, John Cage, who choreographed installations and dance happenings with Rauschenberg. This introduction of a repeated image is experimental in that it precedes the work of Andy Warhol and David Hockney.


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Although Katz’s fascination with Matisse, can be seen in his collages and some of his paintings, particularly 10 AM, 1959, above,  it is hard to ignore the orangey yellow of Ives Field, 1956, below, which adds a distinctive Van Gogh palette.

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One is reminded of Van Gogh’s letter to Emile Barnard in 1888 in which he writes, “There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in blue, then you must put in yellow, and orange too, mustn’t you?” It is also unlikely that the naming of Alex Katz’s only child, Vincent was coincidental. At a time when the work of Jackson Pollock and de Kooning defined an era, it is interesting to see not only the influence of these European artists in Katz’s work but also validation of the roots of Katz’s modernist abstract style.

Although this exhibit does not display Katz’s later more well known work, it does successfully demonstrate the early beginnings of his interest in blocks of color and composition. It also significantly introduces his wide-smiled wife and muse Ada, Bather, 1959, below, who has been the subject of more than 200 of his works.

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It is the image of her in Ada (Oval) 1959, below, that gives a glimpse into the style that his future art will take. Gone are the tentative pastels. The bolder colors and lines become synonymous with Katz’s later glorious work and hint at the impact that his murals and large canvases will have and continue to have. Rooted in time and yet timeless, it is his representation of this New York easy sensibility and feminine strength that makes Katz’s work  so universally appealling and relevant.

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Last chance to see: Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends (through Sep 17th MOMA)

The overwhelming takeaway impression of MOMAs Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends is the sheer volume of his work. The fact that he collaborated with many friends (and lovers, though MOMA fails to disclose this nature of their relationships) does not detract from the fact that he was in the driving seat, throughout, initiating and directing these opportunities, nudging these experiments into the realms of art, and always, always questioning.

The exhibition’s entrance warrants further examination. Humorous and welcoming, Rauschenberg’s playful opening piece, Grand Black Tie Sperm Glut (1987),


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Roy Lichenstein’s  Drowning Girl (1963) (top),  John Chamberlain’s Tomahawak Nolan (1965) (above), and Jasper Johns’ iconic Flag (1954-55) (below),

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All the enfants terribles of that decade, are presented here, continued by , James Rosenquist’s unsettling Marilyn Monroe, I (1962), Claes Oldenburg’s tragi-comic Giant Soft Fan (1966-7), and Andy Warhol’s 32 canvases, Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) all jostling for attention. This context that MOMA presents is essential and yet, what is surprising is that it proves inconsequential.  What becomes apparent very quickly, amongst the curated assemblage of over 250 pieces of Rauschenberg’s work, is that Rauschenberg created his own context, re-defining Abstract-Expressionism, and setting the gold standard for generations of future artists.

Optimism prevails, from the tentative Blueprints (1949-51) with their startling vulnerability, a collaboration with Susan Weil, to whom he was married for a couple of years in the early 1950s, to the ironic and innovative Automobile Tire Print (both 1953) collaboration with John Cage. Rauschenberg learnt the techniques of photograms from Weil, silkscreen painting from Warhol (early 1960s) and invented his own method of transferring photographing images. Prior to that his Erased De Kooning Drawing  (1953) and the repainting of his “White Painting” by the minimalist Brice Marden examined the notion of permanence, line, memory and legacy. Following the success of his combine and silkscreen series, (Venice Biennale, 1964) he ordered the destruction of his 150+ silk screen frames, to avoid any temptation of repetition.

It was this constant search for original representation that imbues this exhibition with such a strong sense of relevance. Lacking the cynicism of the late 90s, when Tracy Emin’s My Bed 1998 and Damien Hirst’s taxidermied sharks and sheep were snapped up by collector Charles Saatchi, Rauschenberg’s incorporation of found objects in his Combines, were nevertheless imbued with coded messages. The patchwork quilt and lover autographed pillow in Bed (1955), the Greek mythology inspired bald-eagle in Canyon (1959) (below)


and the tyre truncated goat in Monogram (1959), allude to his relationships with Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns. Eager to promote the work of his friends and lovers, he also presented a miniature John’s flag and Weil’s landscape in his Short Circuit (1955), as a way to promote new artists, despite the gallery excluding their submissions. This minor but significant act of simultaneous subversion and generosity was apparently typical of Rauschenberg, who pushed the boundaries of accepted norms in art, by using unusual materials, techniques, technical installations and unique collaborations.

His decision to include images of JFK in his silkscreen assemblage, Radioactive 1 (1964) (below),

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following Kennedy’s assassination, reflects a shift from Rauschenberg hinting at his personal priorities, to his political ones. Whilst darker political moments are shown in his review of the ten year cycle of violence, in Signs (1970), a sense of optimism manages to breakthrough with his Duchamp-esque bathtub, Sor Aqua (Venetian),

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and his gurgling dancing mud in the technically complex Mud Muse (1968-71).

Supporting a worldwide community of artists remained paramount to Rauschenberg who set up a foundation to reduce their isolation and simultaneously learn from their global crafts. Yet the continuation and definition of the American dream remained paramount to his art. The culmination of this exhibition, a collection of street signs casually strewn on a podium, can be seen as an ode to Jack Kerouac and Steve McQueen. Nothing suggests the love of the open road and the quest of the American Dream more than Urban Katydid (Glut) (1986) (below).


No artistic review of the second half of the 20th century is complete without referencing Rauschenberg, and it is likely that this exhibition will ensure that his legacy of innovation, collaboration, technical confidence, environmental and social responsibility is more than enough for millennials to appreciate that there was world wide web connectivity prior to the internet, and its name was Rauschenberg.