Painter Alex Katz exhibit: Nassau Museum

Alex Katz's "The Red Smile," a 1963 oil

Alex Katz's "The Red Smile," a 1963 oil on canvas, comes to the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor from the extensive collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Katz exhibit is on view through Oct. 13, 2013. (Credit: Bill Orcutt)

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Alex Katz. If the name doesn't ignite an instant spark of recognition, his art -- and particularly his style -- surely does.

"He may not have the pop-culture fame of someone like [Andy] Warhol in his lifetime," says Karl Willers, director of the Nassau County Museum of Art, "but he's one of the few living artists with a very recognizable style. He has created a visual vocabulary all his own."

The Queens-born artist's work -- inspired in part by bold-color billboards of the 1960s -- receives solo exposure in "Alex Katz: Selections From the Whitney Museum of American Art," opening Saturday at the Nassau museum. It's one of more than 200 solo exhibits in his career.

In visiting Katz's SoHo studio, Dana Miller, curator of the Whitney collection, notes the artist's large, horizontal canvases scattered about. "One is acutely aware," Miller writes in the exhibition catalog, "of the billboard looming outside his fifth-floor window, which seems to be in direct dialogue with the paintings inside."

BIGGER THAN LIFE "Katz is among the few artists keeping the genre of portraiture alive," says Willers. "Only Chuck Close comes close. Today, portraits are mostly left to photographers."

A Katz portrait is as recognizable in style and scale as by the visage of its subject. "His art is very New York, as opposed to L.A. or Paris," says Willers. "There's a savoir faire to the people he paints -- a sophistication and stylishness now reflected in the advertising and fashion tastes of [TV's] 'Mad Men.' He used layout techniques from the billboard and magazine ad culture of that time, when Katz himself was coming into prominence."

Applying expanses of color on oversized canvases, Katz painted ordinary people as if they were Hollywood stars. "He gave them a certain glamour," says Willers, "by painting their tightly cropped faces on a canvas the size and shape of a movie screen."

Born to Russian immigrant parents in St. Albans, Katz began studying art at Cooper Union in the 1940s, continuing with a postgraduate scholarship to Maine's Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, where he painted plein-air landscapes. "It was a blast," the artist, 86, recalls in an interview. "Like feeling lust for the first time." One of his earliest plein-air works, from 1951, is in the Nassau exhibit.

CONSTANT MUSE Katz returned to his first love -- landscapes -- in the mid-'80s after years of painting portraits of the love of his life, his wife and muse, Ada, and their friends. Katz estimates he's painted Ada 250 times. One of his first, "Ada on Pink," 1958, is included in the show. It depicts her dressed in black, with a yellow blanket draped around her. The flesh-pink ground offers no hint of location.

Later Katz landscapes, also in the show, feature trees "the size of real trunks," says Willers. "His influence on American art is as large as his work."

WHAT "Alex Katz: Selections From the Whitney Museum of American Art"

WHEN | WHERE Saturday through Oct. 13, Nassau County Museum of Art, 1 Museum Dr., Roslyn Harbor. Hours: 11 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays

ADMISSION $10, seniors $8, students and children $4, $2 parking on weekends; 516-484-9337, nassaumuseum.org

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