From the beginning, Katz was interested in classical portraiture and making it contemporary. In the early 1960s, influenced by the new mass media—photography, cinema, television, advertising, comics—he began to paint his large-scale figurative compositions. The dominant school then was Abstract Expressionism, and certain elements, such as its preference for large dimensions and all-over composition emphasizing the painting’s flat surface, may have influenced aspects of his art; in everything else, however, his work was in complete contrast, as he chose to create a figurative style that he defined as “totally American”. His art also shares features with Pop Art, such as the use of flat, bright colours, the preference for everyday scenes, and the iconic transformation of the image through the repetition and fragmentation of motifs, but rather than focusing on graphic elements, Katz sought to explore the modulation of light.
Ever since he painted his wife Ada in the late 1950s, the female presence has been a constant in his portraits, not only in studio portraits but also those set outdoors, and the works on show in Madrid are good examples of this. Another recurring element in Katz’s paintings is the incidence of light on surfaces, with special attention to reflections on water in the case of rural landscapes. His search for beauty in his surroundings has led him to focus on his immediate environment, especially family and friends from his closest circle, whom he captures both in the urban environment of New York’s Soho and in the coastal area of Maine, trying to represent the present moment, here and now.
Hailed as a painter of modern life for his iconic portraits and impressionistic landscape images, he has inspired subsequent generations of artists. Throughout his extensive career, Katz’s work has been the subject of numerous solo and group exhibitions, and it forms part of major public and private collections in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. The Guggenheim Museum in New York has just dedicated the retrospective Gathering to his work, covering the last eight decades of his production, and his paintings were in a show at the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza in Madrid, while the Espace Louis Vuitton Seoul is currently paying tribute to him. Upcoming exhibitions include Cool Painting this spring at the Albertina Museum in Vienna and an exhibition in the Netherlands next summer.