‘Who the Hell Needs an Education?’ The Early Art (and Rebellion) of Alex Katz

1940s - Crowd on Subway
Before Alex Katz was a legendary figurative artist, he was a teenager sketching strangers on the New York City subways. Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Alex Katz, the legendary figurative artist, walks into an art gallery in Manhattan, wearing faded black jeans, a gray zip-up hoodie and, in a nod to the pops of color that made him famous, turquoise New Balance sneakers. Sunglasses sit on his bald, shiny head. With a slight hunch, he saunters over to a row of sketches hanging on the wall and mumbles something about the width of the light wood frames—he thinks they should be thinner.

“We had a bit of a problem with that, Alex,” says gallerist Timothy Taylor in his proper British accent. Taylor represents Katz in London, but we’re standing in his New York City outpost, Timothy Taylor 16x34, a speck of a gallery located on the first floor of a charming gray row house in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

“I think the frames are OK,” Katz says.

“Well, that’s high praise!”

Katz goes on: “The work looks clean. The problem when you have a drawing show is, it becomes a frame show. That’s a disaster. This is not.”

He’s referring to “Alex Katz: Subway Drawings,” the first installation of his notebook drawings from the 1940s, now on display at Timothy Taylor 16x34. While most contemporary art galleries resemble bright white cubes, devoid of personality or flair, this one has uneven white brick walls, a green ceiling and wood floors. The whole space measures 16 by 34 feet—thus the gallery’s name—and its Lilliputian size seems appropriate for the intimacy of an exhibit on Katz’s early sketches.

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Today, Katz is widely known for his billboard-sized portraits in bright, bold blocks of color, many of his wife, Ada, his longtime muse, and also for his landscapes, many of Maine, where he spends his summers. (The Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, has a 10,000-square-foot wing dedicated to Katz’s art; he personally donated more than 400 works.) There’s a vibrant intimacy to his art—he says he’s always searching for a “blast of light”—and yet he also leaves it to the viewer to imagine the story behind each work.

Katz has been the subject of more than 200 solo exhibitions, and his paintings, prints and drawings can be found in over 100 public collections around the globe. He’s won many awards, including multiple lifetime achievement nods. But before all that, he was a teenager sketching strangers on the New York City subways.

1940s - Woman - Three Men on the Subway (recto) To learn how to make drawings in 20 minutes, Katz turned New York City into his studio, sketching scenes he saw around him. Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Hanging delicately on Taylor’s Instagram-ready brick walls, the 40 drawings capture scenes Katz witnessed mostly underground, while commuting between Queens and the then-gritty East Village, where he was a student at the Cooper Union School of Art. Two women gently lean their heads together, as if divulging secrets. A man in a top hat and glasses reads a newspaper with a scowl on his face. Another holds a baby on his lap, next to a woman (the mother?) who’s lowered her head into her hand. Katz’s subjects wear delicate capelets, heavy overcoats, architectural hairstyles and vintage hats. With a simple line or a squiggle, he evinces age, exhaustion, boredom and curiosity, not only bringing daily life to life but also offering a rare glimpse into an artist on the cusp of discovering the look, feel and lines that would one day make him famous.

Katz was born in Brooklyn in 1927 but grew up in St. Albans, Queens. “You might as well be someplace in Kentucky, that’s how far New York City was, intellectually and emotionally,” he says. His parents were Russian immigrants—his mother a former actress, his father a businessman—and they both indulged his artistic interests.

“I grew up [in] free fall. I did anything I wanted to do, always,” he says. “When I was 13 and a half, I broke with the world. I went like, out.” He explains: When he was in seventh grade, he took an exam and learned he’d tested into the 10th grade. “I read more than other kids, [but] I was there [in school] making a lot of noise and not doing—I figured high school didn’t matter…. It was, like, Who the hell needs an education?” So his parents sent him to a vocational high school where he could study art in the afternoons. As he puts it, “It was great for clothes and dancing and style.”

Timothy Taylor_Katz Katz, Subway Drawings09_100dpi Katz's sketches from the 1940s are being shown together for the first time at Timothy Taylor 16x34, a gallery in Manhattan. Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

One day, he discovered antique drawing, which requires a slow, meticulous approach. “The first day, you spend three hours just putting dots [on the page] and measuring distances of a face. The second day, you put lines to connect them. The third day, you put your lines and your dots. The fourth day you put your secondary shadows. The fifth day, you go over it and make it look like it’s casual.”

By the time he arrived at Cooper Union, in 1964, he’d perfected the technique. Then he found himself in a drawing class where his teacher wanted him to make a drawing in 20 minutes. “In 20 minutes I couldn’t even put a couple lines on the page—I needed a week!”

So he grabbed a notebook and turned the city into his studio. Every day, he drew quick sketches of people he saw on the E train as he commuted to and from school. He drew on his lunch hour, at jazz concerts and in bars on Third Avenue on Friday nights. “I still remember coming home at 4 a.m., and I started talking to this very attractive girl. I didn’t get her number, and I regret it to this day,” he says. “She got off at Forest Hills—I remember to this day! She was a brunette, in a reddish dress. That’s, like, 70 years ago.”

Katz’s drawings at Timothy Taylor 16x34 have been ripped straight out of his notebook—you can see the perforated edges, stains and notes scribbled on the backs of some pages—and are displayed in frames on the wall in the order he drew them. The first handful feel tentative: They’re done in pencil, often just a head and shoulders. Then the lines become more confident. He starts using pen (always black, except one drawing in blue). Whole bodies appear, then his scenes grow more populated.

“These drawings, whether he thought they were any good at the time, are beautiful, honest sketches, and they only work because he’s interested in the people,” says Taylor. “There are a few people that you meet in life who seem to have figured it out. It’s not because they’ve acquired great wealth or fame; they have a balance to how they live their lives, so they always look and feel comfortable in their own skin. And I think Alex was always like that. And he’s still like that. He believes he’s doing the most important thing he can do.”

RTR314A1 Katz stands in front of his work "White Visor" during a media preview of a retrospective of his prints, on exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts in 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Katz has spent the past seven decades bucking pretty much every art trend in the New York art world—abstract expressionism in the 1940s and ’50s (Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning), pop art in the ’60s and ’70s (Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol), and minimalism from the ’70s onward (Donald Judd, Frank Stella). He was far more interested in depicting the world he saw in front of him than in appeasing the market. As he told The New York Times in 1986, “I never wanted to be part of a movement, unless there could be one called Katz-ism.”

“He makes it sound like he kind of knew what he was doing from the beginning. He went against the grain, again and again and again,” says Taylor. “The great ones know what they’re doing at all ages.”

Katz is also credited with influencing some of the most successful newer artists, like Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas, Julian Opie and Elizabeth Peyton. “He’s one of the few artists I can think of who’s been doing it as long as he has and is still cool with the people collecting the newer artists,” says Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann Galleries in New York City, where he specializes in contemporary art. “You see his work in the fairs, like Art Basel, mixed in with the work of newer artists, and he’s cool because he’s their influence.”

Katz looked up to Matisse, Picasso and Miró. “I always had my eyes on those guys as, Who you gonna go after? I might not be as good as those three guys, but I think I’ve done some substantial work at this point.”

And at 89, Katz is still creating. He lives in an artist’s co-op building in Soho, in downtown Manhattan, and exercises and paints every day. “I’ve been trying to paint grass,” he says. “I did a 6 by 12, which turned out to be an abstract painting—I didn’t get it. Then I did a 9- by 18-foot painting that everyone says is a terrific painting. It isn’t what I wanted. It’s a real failure! Then I did 5 by 15 feet that’s a little better but isn’t what I wanted. So next summer”—he chuckles softly—“I’m gonna try again.”