Women walk past the work “Pas de Deus,” by Alex Katz, at the Colby Museum of Art in Waterville. The museum is showing the first comprehensive works of Katz in his collaboration with theater and dance artists, dating back several decades. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

WATERVILLE — It’s a strange thing to say about an artist whose been exhibited in museums and galleries since the Truman Administration, but Alex Katz is having a moment.

The 95-year-old New York painter, best known for his figurative portraits and landscapes of vivid color (not to mention his creative longevity), has been featured in more than 10 solo or group exhibits in the last two years alone. He’s getting the retrospective treatment with “Alex Katz: Gathering” at the Guggenheim in Manhattan, which opened last week.

But Katz, who has been coming to Maine since he attended the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture, also has an exhibit closer to his summer home on the Midcoast.

“Alex Katz: Theater and Dance” opened at the Colby College Museum of Art in August and runs through February. Admission to the museum is free.

Colby already has one of the biggest collections of Katz’s work – some 900 pieces, most of them donated by the artist – but this is the first time the museum (or any museum) has focused an exhibit on his collaborations with theater and dance production companies and Paul Taylor, in particular. Taylor founded a modern dance company in New York in the mid-1950s, right around the time Katz’s career started to take shape. The company still produces original work today, although Taylor died in 2018.

Included in the Colby exhibit are a range of large-scale paintings – some dating back decades, some created more recently – that capture the movements of Taylor’s choreography (and others, too) in Katz’s distinctive visual style.


One painting from 1977, titled “Song,” depicts six dancers on a stage. Each has a hand stretched above the head and appears to be mid-twirl. Each is wearing a solid red shirt, pink pants and red shoes. The background is a mix of red and pink, too, creating a warmth that stands at odds with the solemn expression on the faces.

Colby Museum of Art director Jacqueline Terrassa. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Nobody had ever presented in depth his collaboration with theater and dance artists,” said Colby Museum director Jacqueline Terrassa. “The relationship between performance and his work had not been dealt with, yet it’s such a profoundly important part of his practice from the beginning to now.”

Terrassa also said the timing of the Katz exhibit also allows Colby to highlight next year’s opening of the Gordon Center for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Katz’s artistic career has been built around drawing figures from life – his wife of 64 years, Ada, has been a frequent subject – and the time he spent working with Taylor to design set pieces and costumes provided inspiration that continued long after their partnership ended. He routinely invited dancers to model in his studio.

“Paintings are collaborative in a sense that all your friends contribute to the paintings, and the thing with Paul Taylor was an extension of what was happening in the studio,” Katz said in an email response to questions about the exhibit. “When you have the dancing and the music and the sets together, and you hit it, there is more of an energy return than you get from a painting.”



Katz was born in 1927 to Russian immigrants who fled during the Soviet Revolution and settled in New York. He grew up in Queens.

He went to the school of art at Cooper Union close to home and then ventured north to Maine, where he studied in 1949 and 1950 at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, an artists’ residency that had opened only a few years earlier.

It was there that Katz explored painting from life and plein air painting, diverging from the trending styles of modernism and abstract expressionism, and later pop art, which dominated the New York art scene. He would employ those two practices often in the decades that followed.

Artist Alex Katz, who lives in New York but spends part of the year in Maine, photographed in 2021. Photo by Isaac Katz

It also sparked his love for Maine.

Although he returned to New York, Katz reserved his summers for Maine starting in 1954, the same year of his first solo exhibit at the Roko Gallery in Manhattan. He bought a 19th-century farmhouse in Lincolnville, a quiet town on the Midcoast north of Camden, and has a studio there.

One of Katz’s early mentors in Maine was Willard Cummings, one of the founders of the Skowhegan school. Cummings was close friends with Hugh Gourley, who at that time was director of the art museum at Colby College.


“They had a warm reception to the work, and it just kept growing,” Katz explained. “It was an organic thing. It provided a chance for me to have my work exhibited to the public.”

Over the years, Katz donated hundreds of pieces to the college. In 1996, following a donation from Paul Schupf, a longtime friend and donor to Colby who had an extensive collection of Katz’s paintings, the museum opened a new wing that became a permanent home for his work.

Katz has grown more philanthropic in his later years. In 2004, he started the Alex Katz Foundation to provide grants to young artists and to purchase pieces that are then donated to museums. He said the impetus for the foundation came from his own memories of being a struggling young artist.

“The nice thing about the United States is that the government doesn’t care what artists do,” he said. “The bad thing about the United States is that it doesn’t support them either.

“Three years after art school it seems to get rough, and I had a really hard time supporting myself in my late 20s and early 30s. If you buy a painting, you encourage the artist to go on.”

“George Washington Crossing the Delaware: Burning Logs 2,” 1968, left, and “Set Pieces for Diggity,” 1978, by Alex Katz on display at the Colby Museum of Art in Waterville. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer



On a weekday last month, Levi Prombaum offered a tour of Katz’s exhibit. Prombaum is Colby’s Katz consulting curator, and he worked closely with Rob Storr, a prominent curator, art critic and dean of the Yale School of Art, on the exhibit.

“I think this exhibit tells the story of his painting from a new perspective. It’s so different from any other,” Prombaum said.

That’s a tough thing to pull off for an artist who has been the subject of more than 250 solo exhibitions and nearly 500 group exhibitions in his 70-plus-year career.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s in New York, Katz was establishing himself as an artist in the second-generation New York School, an informal collective of writers, musicians, performers and artists whose work was often avant-garde.

Katz and his wife were particularly interested in theater and dance.

“The story goes that Alex is a wonderful dancer, but his wife is even better,” Prombaum said.


He met Paul Taylor, a virtuoso dancer and choreographer at that time, and, somewhat accidentally, began designing sets and costumes on his productions. One of his original set designs is included in the Colby exhibit.

Also included are examples of his cutouts – two-dimensional sculptures that informed his vision for the stage.

Over 40 years, Katz and Taylor collaborated more than a dozen times. He worked with other dance and theater companies as well – Yoshiko Chuma, Laura Dean, William Dunas and Parsons Dance. Collectively, they provided Katz with inspiration that bled into his painting.

A distinguishing element of Katz’s work has always been intimacy. The paintings are large and often zoomed in on faces or hands. There is almost always implied movement. They are more realist than abstract, although the vibrant colors set the painting somewhere in between.

Long after he stopped working on sets and costumes, Katz continued to paint dancers. In fact, some paintings from the Colby exhibit were done in the last few years.

“He’s prolific, of course, but what surprises me is the degree to which he’s always challenging himself to try something new, even when he’s revisiting themes of the past,” said Terrassa, the Colby museum director. “He does not want to be bored, and there is an audacity to the recent work.”

Asked how he keeps finding motivation at his age, Katz had a matter-of-fact answer.

“One body of work naturally leads to another,” he said.

Works by Alex Katz, from left, “Song,” Laura Dean Dance Co., 1977, “Dancer Triptych,” 2011 and “Christopher and Kate,” 1984, on display at the Colby Museum of Art in Waterville. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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