Alex Katz was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, as the son of an émigré who had lost a factory he owned in Russia to the Soviet revolution. In 1928 the family moved to St. Albans, Queens, where Katz grew up.
From 1946 to 1949 Katz studied at The Cooper Union in New York, and from 1949 to 1950 he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine. Skowhegan exposed him to painting from life, which would prove pivotal in his development as a painter and remains a staple of his practices today. Katz explains that Skowhegan's plein air painting gave him "a reason to devote my life to painting." Every year from early June to mid-September, Katz moves from his SoHo loft to a 19th-century clapboard farmhouse in Lincolnville, Maine. A summer resident of Lincolnville since 1954, he has developed a close relationship with local Colby College. From 1954 to 1960, he made a number of small collages of still lifes, Maine landscapes, and small figures. He met Ada Del Moro, who had studied biology at New York University, at a gallery opening in 1957. In 1960, Katz had his first (and only) son, Vincent Katz. Vincent Katz had two sons, Isaac and Oliver, who have been the subjects of Katz's paintings.
Katz has admitted to destroying a thousand paintings during his first ten years as a painter in order to find his style. Since the 1950s, he worked to create art more freely in the sense that he tried to paint "faster than [he] can think." His works seem simple, but according to Katz they are more reductive, which is fitting to his personality. "(The) one thing I don't want to do is things already done. As for particular subject matter, I don't like narratives, basically.
Katz achieved great public prominence in the 1980s. He is well known for his large paintings, whose bold simplicity and heightened colours are now seen as precursors to Pop Art.
Katz's paintings are divided almost equally into the genres of portraiture and landscape. Since the 1960s he has painted views of New York (especially his immediate surroundings in Soho), the landscapes of Maine, where he spends several months every year, as well as portraits of family members, artists, writers and New York society protagonists. His paintings are defined by their flatness of colour and form, their economy of line, and their cool but seductive emotional detachment. A key source of inspiration is the woodcuts produced by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro.
In the early 1960s, influenced by films, television, and billboard advertising, Katz began painting large-scale paintings, often with dramatically cropped faces. Ada Katz, whom he married in 1958, has been the subject of over 250 portraits throughout his career. To make one of his large works, Katz paints a small oil sketch of a subject on a masonite board; the sitting might take an hour and a half. He then makes a small, detailed drawing in pencil or charcoal, with the subject returning, perhaps, for the artist to make corrections. Katz next blows up the drawing into a "cartoon," sometimes using an overhead projector, and transfers it to an enormous canvas via "pouncing"—a technique used by Renaissance artists, involving powdered pigment pushed through tiny perforations pricked into the cartoon to recreate the composition on the surface to be painted. Katz pre-mixes all his colors and gets his brushes ready. Then he dives in and paints the canvas—12 feet wide by 7 feet high or even larger—in a session of six or seven hours.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Katz developed a technique of painting on cut panels, first of wood, then aluminum, calling them "cutouts". These works would occupy space like sculptures, but their physicality is compressed into planes, as with paintings.In later works, the cutouts are attached to wide, U-shaped aluminum stands, with a flickering, cinematic presence enhanced by warm spotlights. Most are close-ups, showing either front-and-back views of the same figure's head or figures who regard each other from opposite edges of the stand.
After 1964, Katz increasingly portrayed groups of figures. He would continue painting these complex groups into the 1970s, portraying the social world of painters, poets, critics, and other colleagues that surrounded him. He began designing sets and costumes for choreographer Paul Taylor in the early 1960s, and he has painted many images of dancers throughout the years. One Flight Up (1968) consists of more than 30 portraits of some of the leading lights of New York's intelligentsia during the late 1960s, such as the poet John Ashbery, the art critic Irving Sandler and the curator Henry Geldzahler, who championed Andy Warhol. Each portrait is painted using oils on both sides of a sliver of aluminium that has then been cut into the shape of the subject's head and shoulders. The silhouettes are arranged predominantly in four long rows on a plain metal table.
After his Whitney exhibition in 1974, Katz focused on landscapes stating "I wanted to make an environmental landscape, where you were IN it." In the late 1980s, Katz took on a new subject in his work: fashion models in designer clothing, including Kate Moss and Christy Turlington. "I've always been interested in fashion because it's ephemeral," he said.
Katz has collaborated with poets and writers since the 1960s, producing several notable editions such as "Face of the Poet" combining his images with poetry from his circle, such as Ted Berrigan, Ann Lauterbach, Carter Ratcliff, and Gerard Malanga. He has worked with the poet John Ashbery, creating publications entitled "Fragment" in 1966 and "Coma Berenices". in 2005. He has worked with Vincent Katz on "A Tremor in the Morning" and "Swimming Home". Katz also made 25 etchings for the Arion Press edition of Gloria with 28 poems by Bill Berkson. Other collaborators include Robert Creeley, with whom he produced "Edges" and "Legeia: A Libretto". and Kenneth Koch, producing "Interlocking Lives". In 1962, Harper's Bazaar incorporated numerous wooden cutouts by Katz for a four-page summer fashion spread.
Numerous publications outline Katz's career's many facets: from Alex Katz in Maine published by the Farnsworth Art Museum to the catalogue Alex Katz New York, published by the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Alex Katz Seeing Drawing, Making, published in 2008, describes Katz's multiple-stage process of first producing charcoal drawings, small oil studies, and large cartoons for placing the image on the canvas and the final painting of the canvas. In 2005, Phaidon Press published an illustrated survey, Alex Katz, by Carter Ratcliff, Robert Storr and Iwona Blazwick. In 1989, a special edition of Parkett was devoted to Katz, showing that he is now considered a major reference for younger painters and artists. Over the years, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Liam Gillick, Peter Halley, David Salle and Richard Prince have written essays about his work or conducted interviews with him.
Katz' work is said to have influenced many following painters, such as David Salle, Peter Halley and Richard Prince, as well as younger artists like Peter Doig, Julian Opie, Liam Gillick, Elizabeth Peyton, Barb Januszkiewicz, Johan Andersson and Brian Alfred. Furthermore, it has become ubiquitous in advertising and graphic design.