Image: From Titian to Alex Katz
Alex Katz. Photo by Isaac Katz, 2021
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From Titian to Alex Katz Artists and poets have long enjoyed a symbiosis

13 May 2024

Katz’s fruitful relationships with John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara among others are a reminder that art and poetry thrive in proximity

By Ben Luke

Among the many insights on our podcast A brush with… Alex Katz is how important poetry has been to the US painter’s art. Poets of the New York School like James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara, and others who followed, like Anne Waldman, “formed a natural audience for me”, Katz recalls. They also appear in his work: O’Hara among Katz’s first sculptural cut-outs; John Ashbery and his partner David Kermani at leisure in their Chelsea home; and Waldman, portrayed twice in a conjoined patterned headscarf in Face of a Poet (1972). 

The poets’ world “was fantastic”, Katz says. O’Hara in particular “became my hero… he has an emotional extension that I really admired.” O’Hara’s 1960s text on Katz is among the most perceptive on him. “He has the stubbornness of the ‘great American tradition’ in the dominating face of European influences,” the poet wrote, articulating the central tension in Katz’s painting; Katz speaks of allying the “muscularity” of post-war US painters with the pictorial and emotional sophistication of Europeans including Cézanne and Bonnard.

O’Hara went on to describe “a ‘void’ of smoothly painted colour, as smoothly painted as the figure itself, where the fairly realistic figure existed (but did not rest) in a space which had no floor, no walls, no source of light, no viewpoint”. He added that Katz’s people “stayed in the picture as solutions of a formal problem, neither existential nor lost, neither deprived nor dismayed”.

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