While from different artistic generations, Alex Katz (b. 1927) and Julian Opie (b. 1958) both utilize individual reductive artistic languages reflective of our contemporary world in their figurative works. The juxtaposition of their portraits, landscapes, and works depicting nature results in an enriching experience.
In a review of Katz’s work entitled “Cool Katz,” art critic John Perrault elucidates how the traditional view of modernism as mere progress toward abstraction is flawed in light of the modernist principle that modern life should reflect life as it is lived. Both Katz and Opie utilize a pared-down, essentialist language derivative of the technology and media of their times. Katz began his artistic career during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Notably, he adapted the large scale formats of the New York School into the realm of representation; instead of abstract, metaphysical images, he created scenes from everyday life inspired by contemporary film close-ups, advertising, and fashion. Initially part of the New British Sculpture Group, Opie created abstract sculptures influenced by his interest in representation and the way images are perceived before turning to this same interest in the figurative realm, constructing images of people and nature inspired by traffic signs, billboards, and digital media.
As is evident in the works included in this online viewing room, both Katz and Opie abstract their images in such a way that individuals are recognizable but viewers can personally identify with who or what is portrayed. Katz’s works are not detailed or realistic in that there are no blemishes or wrinkles, yet still elicit the semblance of the sitter. More abstract than Katz’s portraits, in Opie’s series Paper Heads the individuals are still personalized through the inclusion of hairstyle, clothes, and accessories in such a way that one can easily find something of themselves or a friend. Both Katz’s images of flowers and Opie’s images of birds take mere seconds to take in, much like advertisements and signs, and as such are intrinsic to their time. In this way, their works are both personal yet simultaneously powerfully universal.
Some critics and viewers cite works alternately by Katz or Opie as evocative of psychological isolation or alienation. Katz discounts the majority of such readings, stating his work is about style and objectivity. Similarly, Opie dislikes melancholic interpretations of his work, stating it is never despondent or desolate. Both artists look at their surroundings and translate them in ways meant to be both pleasing to behold and subjectively relatable to all through their distilled style and everyday subject matter. As Opie says, “Art is a shared language and an amazing rich resource that allows us to understand the world and ourselves, in fact allows us to see and navigate the world.”