When Alex Katz was a kid, his parents, artistic Russian emigres, painted the walls of their Brooklyn home in wild colors and strange patterns. The young Katz rebelled. He painted his bedroom gray and plum, some of the most ordinary colors he could find.
"Everything in our house was so damn bizarre," he recalled.
There is nothing bizarre about Katz's art today.
In the Tampa Museum of Art's exhibition "Alex Katz: Black and White," many of the works (mostly prints as well as a few paintings) are in black and white. Others, however, have flat, intense colors as vivid as advertising banners.
His art can appear deceptively simple. His clean forms sometimes resemble cutouts. In fact, two sculptures on view actually are cutouts of aluminum.
Katz, who showed up for the opening of this exhibition, is whiplash trim and vigorous. He will turn 90 in a few months and is still doing 300 pushups and 200 situps every day.
He came of age professionally in the 1960s when Pop art exploded on the scene. Artists like Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein used images from comics, commercial packaging and advertising. Pop art reflected the exploding consumer thirst for products and movies.
Katz came face to face with the ideas of the critically approved "high art" of the period. In abstract expressionism and minimalism, the artist's feelings were expressed on canvases filled with dramatic brushstrokes or in overall fields of solid color.
Katz wasn't comfortable with any of this.
He was counseled never to paint figures. "An older painter gave me some advice. 'Figuration is obsolete and color is French.' "
"I said to myself, 'To you, baby.' "
"When my wife met me," Katz remembered, "she said, 'I thought every intelligent painter would be painting abstracts. What are you doing painting figuratives?' "
Katz felt he had to find his own way. "I was trying to make something that was new and realistic. I didn't know if it was possible, but I kept searching."
"Actually, I had no idea whether what I was doing was going to find an audience, but my instincts told me there was no other way for me."
He was right to follow his instincts. They led him to an internationally acclaimed career. With exhibitions at many major museums, Katz is considered an important American artist. Along with other key contemporary artists, he was invited to create prints at the University of South Florida's noted Graphicstudio. Two books from Graphicstudio projects are in the show.
Katz intelligently distilled the pictorial language of advertising. That language consists of emblems: easily recognizable images repeated many times. As a 20th century artist, he also had to salute the physical qualities of his materials: the flatness of his paper, the dimensions of his canvas, the intensity of his paints. He could paint figures, but sometimes they would have to be almost as abstracted as emblems.
After all, he was not going to paint a window to another world, as artists did centuries ago.
When you visit the show, you'll see how he has tackled these issues. In this stunning exhibition of more than 50 of his works, four of them are titled Ariel. One is a banner-size oil painting on linen. The three smaller versions use different background colors and printing techniques.
All of them show the same trio of pretty girls in swimsuits (actually the same girl in different poses). They parade across the paper like beauty contestants. The women are identical in every version. Katz has simplified their poses so they don't stand out individually. Rather, the rhythm of their bodies has a musical pattern that makes them easy to remember, very much like a melody that sticks in your head.
Look at the fragments of sunbeams skittering like birds across the trees and leaves in the 2015 woodcut Maine Woods 2. The light seems to dance across the scene — even as you are aware of the dense ink and sturdy paper. Katz spends a lot of his time in his studio in Maine, where his love for the surrounding forest is as strong as his love for making art.
"I want to do something larger than descriptive painting," said Katz. "I've been working to make this kind of 'artificial realistic' painting."