Herbert Katzman: Skyscapes Painter
Glorious Sky: Herbert Katzman's New York at the Museum of the City of New York is the first major museum retrospective of this American artist. Who's Katzman? Never heard of him --- not surprising as he is hardly a household name. Yet in the 1950s Katzman was considered one of America's best artists. He was the one to watch exhibiting along with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko. But like Edward Hopper a generation earlier, Katzman was a figurative painter at a time when artistic diversity was on the wane. Katzman peaked in terms of public awareness in the 1950s. After that, he was in effect doomed to semi-obscurity by the overwhelming preference of art critics, notably Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, for Abstract Expressionism. And collectors followed suit chasing after the big names favored by critics. Although he was once considered one of the most promising painters of his time, Katzman (1923-2004) by the 1960s was deemed unfashionable.
Credit Tom Wolfe in "The Painted Word" for explaining the loss of such critical support. Wolfe wrote that critics had too much influence on the art world. He believed that by the 1970s an art world that had once been artistically diverse had moved away from a visual experience and become a platform for art critics' theories. At a time when it was unpopular to be a figurative painter, Katzman, as one of his students said, "was interested in making art that someone might find beautiful and unashamedly so."
Luckily for Katzman and for museum-goers today, friends and collectors like Joanna and Dan Rose, who sponsored the exhibition, continued to support the artist and collect his work. In the museum's catalog of the Katzman show, various essays emphasize Katzman was never swayed by popular assessments, maintaining always his independence as a realist painter. " I do not paint abstractly because if I give up the appearance of the world I find I am unable to become involved in it," quotes curator Julia Blaut in a catalog essay.
In the exhibition's galleries of early work, especially in series of paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge, Katzman used a palette knife to lay down thick paint in bold colors, what Blaut calls a "representational expressionism." New York's skyline, harbor, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Hudson and East Rivers fascinated the painter throughout his life.
Many of Katzman's late drawings are intensely atmospheric, almost romanticized scenes of the city's harbor. He used colored paper and contrasting colored chalks to render blurry architectural forms and impressions of light, especially at dusk. (Katzman was a sunset painter. There's not one morning sunrise in the entire show.) Katzman's studio was in Westbeth Artists Housing in Greenwich Village where he had a view of the Twin Towers from his window. One can only imagine his despair as he watched the towers being destroyed on September 11. The Towers were completed just at the time Katzman moved into his studio in 1971 and were his "muse" until nearly the end of his life. "That's why he decided to leave them in his post 2001 images as they were part of his memory of the skyline and of the city where he had matured as an artist," says Blaut. Katzman died in his studio on October 15, 2004. A drawing of New York Harbor was on the table next to him. The Katzman show is on view through February 21, 2011. The Museum of the City of New York is at 1220 Fifth Avenue, www.mcny.org.