For the past seven decades, give or take, the 95-year-old painter Alex Katz has split his time between a house in Lincolnville and an apartment in New York while splitting his seemingly inexhaustible creative energy largely between Maine landscapes and pop-art–ish portraiture. His vast output certainly gets its due: just this year, as a career retrospective closed in Madrid, another opened in New York, at the Guggenheim. Katz’s varied oeuvre, though, is too much to encapsulate in one show, and a new exhibition at the Colby Museum of Art puts a rather specific and previously unexamined aspect of his artistic legacy on display: his collaborations with theater and dance companies.
Curatorial staff at the Colby Museum, home to more than 900 Katz works, came up with the idea with Katz’s input. They wanted to know, museum director Jacqueline Terrassa says, “What hasn’t been studied or presented? What hasn’t been understood that he is interested in seeing realized?” Katz started partnering with theater and dance companies as a costume and set designer in the early 1960s, and he kept at it over the years. Before the Colby shows, though, no other museum exhibition had homed in on his relationship to the performing arts.
Clockwise from top: Katz painted the oil-on-canvas backdrop for James Schuyler’s 1965 play Shopping and Waiting; Katz helped with costume design for Paul Taylor’s 1965 Post Meridian, the basis for an eponymous 1991 painting; the Parsons Dance Company sported Katz’s costumes for Incandescence in 1990.
Katz’s longtime and foremost collaborator was Paul Taylor, the avant-garde choreographer and founder of the New York-based Paul Taylor Dance Company. Taylor, who died in 2018, was remembered in a New York Times obituary for bringing “lyrical musicality, capacity for joy, and wide poetic imagination to modern dance over six decades as one of its greatest choreographers.” The Times also noted that Katz was involved with some of Taylor’s “most exceptional works.” For one joint project, Katz designed a series of panels that obscured dancers’ movements in different ways depending on where in the audience a viewer was seated. For another, he scattered cutouts of dogs across the stage for the dancers to dart between. (A Times writer more recently characterized Katz’s set designs as “wacky,” but not in a pejorative way.) In total, Katz and Taylor worked together on more than a dozen performances.
It was also in the early 1960s that Katz began experimenting with the large-format paintings for which he’s most recognized today. He was developing a sharp sense for how big, empty spaces — whether stages or canvasses — could be made into something focused and impactful. Perhaps it’s mere coincidence, but one can imagine how his painting informed his set design and vice versa. The Colby show pulls together sketches of costumes, pieces from sets, paintings of dancers, and archival videos and photos of performances to portray an artist at home in multiple artistic spheres. Maybe it’s another case of coincidence, but at work in his studio, Katz was known to work with athletic, almost balletic fluidity and intensity — his approach to painting was captured in a 1996 mini-documentary, Alex Katz Five Hours. “To make big 20-foot paintings like he does, you can’t just stand in one corner and paint with a little brush — you have to get in there,” Colby’s Terrassa says. “Like dance, it’s a physical feat.”