The cavernous lobby of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art is jammed with people, but it is impossible to miss Alex Katz. The artist famous for his bright figurative paintings is standing by the information desk wearing a parka so blindingly orange it looks radioactive. Orange is one of Katz's favorite colors, and the jacket, adorned with reflective silver strips, is the kind that a guy on a road crew might wear to direct traffic in a rainstorm. But this French-made parka is downright chic, rather like its owner, who looks at least a decade younger than his 82 years, with a smooth head (he shaves it daily) and features as sharp as those of the suave figures who populate his paintings.

He has come to the Met to see an exhibition of works by Pierre Bonnard, the French Post-Impressionist who was a big influence when Katz was starting out. "Bonnard was very important in the early 1950s," Katz says. "His painting was in the same direction as [Jackson] Pollock—away from a contained plane. It was all over light, just light and color." He goes on: "They're great paintings; they have great atmosphere. Bonnard's great with reds and oranges—it is very hard to get transparency with red!"

A maverick from the beginning, Katz came of age when Abstract Expressionism still reigned, yet he turned to painting landscapes and the human figure. Over time, his paintings got bigger. "Appropriating the monumental scale, stark composition and dramatic light of the Abstract Expressionists, he would beat the heroic generation at their own game," the critic Carter Ratcliff wrote in a 2005 monograph on Katz.

"It was an open door," Katz says today. "No one was doing representational painting on a large scale."

Taking cues from Cinemascope movies and billboards, his highly stylized pictures also anticipated Pop Art. His deadpan evocation of flat, bright figures had an everyday quality that linked them to commercial art and popular culture. Early on, his work was often panned. Clement Greenberg, the critic famous for championing the Abstract Expressionists, "actually went out of his way to say how lousy I was," Katz recalled in an article he wrote for the New Criterion .

But critical opinion has never seemed to matter to Katz. "Alex is a man of supreme confidence and clarity," says Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. "He quickly realized what he was about and was absolutely undaunted and single-minded in that pursuit. That persistence enabled him to weather the contradictory movements in the art world."

Today, Katz's popularity is exploding. His quin­tessentially American evocations of people at cocktail parties or the beach and his landscapes of Maine took off in Europe, especially after the collector Charles Saatchi showed off his Katzes in his private museum in London a decade ago. The painter has also found a substantial new audience at home in the United States. As figurative painting made a comeback in the late '80s and '90s, a younger generation of artists began to see Katz with new appreciation. "Artists were looking at their predecessors, but there were not a lot of them who'd continued in that figurative zone consistently, with his level of detachment," says Weinberg. "Coolness is something that artists of all generations admire—cool in the sense of detachment, but [also] cool in the sense of hip."

Like Warhol before him, Katz has no problem bridging the worlds of art and fashion, whether creating artwork for W magazine or getting supermodels such as Christy Turlington and Kate Moss to sit for him. "I've always been interested in fashion because it's ephemeral," he says. Katz himself even modeled for the J. Crew spring catalog this year.

The stylish octogenarian is, by his own account, as busy as ever. So far this year, Katz has had exhibitions in Milan and Catanzaro in Italy, Paris, Vero Beach in Florida, Finland and at his New York City gallery, PaceWildenstein, where he recently showed a series of monumental sunsets.

"I want to compete with the kids!" he said one afternoon while sitting on a leather sofa in his sparsely furnished SoHo loft, in Manhattan, where he has lived since 1968. Just beyond the living room is his studio, an airy, white-walled space that floods with daylight. There isn't a speckle of paint on the linoleum floor. "I don't like mess," says Katz. "I don't like paint on my clothes or my hands or my furniture."

A series of gigantic, freshly painted canvases are propped up around the studio—each a frieze of enormous heads, some of men, others women. The pieces are reminiscent of what the artist was doing decades ago, most memorably in a series of Times Square murals he made in 1977. "I've been working to make this kind of ‘artificial realistic' painting," he says of the latest efforts. "I want to do something larger than a descriptive painting."

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 an epic session of six or seven hours. "It's all done wet on wet," he explains. The paints blend and become luminous.

From far away or in reproduction, Katz's pictures look hyper-smooth, but up close you notice the brushstrokes and the small bits of accent color that attract the eye. More than painterly technique or the image depicted, though, his work is about the style. "I'd just as soon have the style be the content, style rather than form," he says. "The style is what puts all the disparate parts together."

Katz's wife, Ada, walks into his studio, offering coffee. A visitor might be forgiven for presuming to have met her before, so familiar is she as Katz's muse and model over the course of their 51-year marriage. The long hair that brushes her shoulders is gray now, but the expressive dark eyes in her serene face are the same as those that look out from under a hat in Red Coat (1982), from under an umbrella in The Blue Umbrella (1972) and from all six Adas wearing the same glamorous cocktail sheath in one of his most popular works, The Black Dress (1960). Her husband says she's an American version of Picasso's famous model and mistress Dora Maar. But, Katz is quick to add, "When I saw photos of Dora Maar, I said, ‘Picasso cheated on her neck and shoulders!' Ada has a much better neck and shoulders."

Katz's speech still bears traces of his childhood in Queens, New York. The son of an émigré who'd lost a factory he owned in Russia to the Soviet revolution, Katz "drifted into fine art," he says. He was studying commercial art at a local vocational high school when he began to draw from casts of antique sculpture and won admission to the Cooper Union School of Art in Manhattan. He met Ada, who had studied biology at New York University, at a gallery opening in 1957. "She's a great beauty," he says. "The gestures are perfect. She's like an actress in a sense. She's also a very sharp Italian girl from the Bronx—you can't beat that." (The couple have one son, Vincent Katz, 49, a poet and art critic.) Social life with Ada in the '50s and '60s revolved around poets—Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch—as much as painters. "They were dealing with everyday experiences, in a kind of sophisticated way," Katz recalls. (In Katz's 1967 portrait, Koch looks slightly uneasy behind a big pair of horn-rimmed glasses.)

Katz may be best known for his portraits, but he has also devoted himself to landscapes—works that are daring precisely because they lack people and "throw away the lifelines" of human interest, noted the critic David Cohen. "They work on Katz's own painterly terms or not at all." Many are evocations of Maine, where he has gone to paint every summer for the past 60 years, and where he has a house and studio on a small lake.

"It's a conceit in a way," Katz says. "It's like you can paint the same river twice differently. I often paint in the same place. It's like painting Ada over and over again—to see if you can get something else out of the same subject matter."

The Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, Maine, has devoted a 10,000-square-foot wing to Katz's artworks, the majority of which he donated. In addition, he has purchased numerous pieces for the museum by artists such as Jennifer Bartlett, Chuck Close, Francesco Clemente, Elizabeth Murray and, most recently, Marsden Hartley (a Maine native). Five years ago, he curated a show at Colby of such young art stars as Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig and Merlin James, who work in the same figurative territory staked out by Katz.

Katz's agelessness is hard won. He's a super-jock, who runs and does "tons of" push-ups and sit-ups when he's home in New York; in Maine, he works out, he says, up to four hours a day—running, bicycling and swimming. How far can he run? "As far as I like. I can outperform a lot of 21-year-olds physically," he says.

He says he also competes with artists half his age "for the audience," though with limited weaponry. "My subject matter is not particularly interesting," he says with a smile. "It's not hot subject matter—you know, no crucifixions, no violence, no sex." His tools are color and light, and his own stripped-down vision of the world. "I try to make painting that looks simple," he says, and cites seeing a Velázquez portrait of a Hapsburg infanta in a traveling exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum when he was in his mid-20s: "It was nothing—so simple! Something could be so simple and so much. Just a green background, a little girl—everything was perfect. There's no story line. It's immediate. He painted directly. He saw it, he painted it."

A Katz painting, for all its coolness, projects feeling. "The pictures are supposed to be lyric, they're supposed to give you an up," he says. "I want to make something that's sort of like your happier condition. Impressionist pictures are basically that—Impressionist painting is a happy lie."

Katz's happy lies are those timeless beautiful faces with perfect skin, or the trees of a Maine summer, forever leafy and green.

Yet, sometimes, even the elegant Ada can look grave, on the brink of tears. And the landscapes can be dark—most notably, his haunting "nocturnes" or night scenes, with their nuanced layers of darkness far moodier than so many of the crisp and colorful portraits. In the recent series of sunsets, for example, Katz, in essence, is capturing the passing of time. It was hard to make the oil sketches, he reports—only 15 minutes or so on a Maine porch before dusk fell. In these large paintings, seen together, time passes quickly, and the sky becomes an impossible orange, reflected in the lake. Then, in the next painting, the lake has turned dead, to gray. These pictures, with black trees in the foreground, are elegiac—their subject is the last few minutes of daylight that no one can hang onto.

Luckily, there is consolation, even what Katz calls a kind of eternity, in art itself. "That's the difference between a painting and a sunset," he says. "The painting will stay with you, but the sunset disappears." And so Katz keeps his focus on the moment, painting like there's no tomorrow.

Writer Cathleen McGuigan lives in New York City. Photographer Stephanie Sinclair is also based in New York.

A Woodstock Moment – 40 Years Later

On August 15, 1969, Nick Ercoline was tending Dino's bar in Middletown, New York, while his girlfriend of ten weeks, Bobbi Kelly, sat on a stool, sipping nickel draft beer and listening to the news on the radio. In the past 30 days, Senator Ted Kennedy had driven off a bridge at Chappaquiddick Island, the Apollo 11 astronauts had planted a flag on the moon and the Charles Manson family had murdered eight Californians, including actress Sharon Tate, in Los Angeles. In the soft green hills of Catskills dairy country, such events seemed worlds away.

That Friday night, however, waves of American youths were surging toward Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, 40 miles up the road, for three days of something called the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. A hush fell over Dino's as newscasters told of epic traffic jams and crowd estimates rising to 500,000. When they heard a rumor (false, it turned out) that a glut of cars had shut down the New York State Thruway, the 20-year-old sweethearts could no longer resist. "We just got to thinking, we were never going to see anything like this the rest of our lives, ever," Nick says.

Earlier that same day, photographer Burk Uzzle, a Life magazine alumnus and a member of the elite Magnum photo agency, had driven upstate from Manhattan with his wife and two young sons to camp on the trout-filled Neversink River. Uzzle had declined an invitation from Newsweek to cover Woodstock, thinking he would just duck in and shoot it his way instead, then retreat to his campsite. "I really don't like to work on assignment, to tell you the truth," he says. "Because then I'm obligated to do what editors want me to do, and that's usually the wrong thing."

As Uzzle walked amid Woodstock's many potential disasters—rain, drugs, food and water shortages—he felt something of an Aquarian spirit in the air. "I'd say to my colleagues down by the stage, ‘Hey, you guys, it's incredible out there. The girls are taking their clothes off. The guys, too. It's really beautiful,' " he recalls. "And they'd tell me, ‘No, no, no, the editor wants me to stay here and get Ravi Shankar.' "

On Saturday morning Nick and Bobbi, with friends Mike Duco, Cathy Wells and Jim "Corky" Corcoran, a Vietnam veteran fresh from the Marines, set off in Corcoran's mother's 1965 Impala station wagon down country lanes and across cow pastures. In standstill traffic a few miles from Bethel, they parked the Impala, flagged down a van full of naked hippies, then walked the final stretch to Yasgur's farm. A spaced-out Californian named Herbie tagged along, carrying a wooden staff with a plastic butterfly dancing from the tip. The group claimed a patch of mud on the rim of a slope. "It was a sea of humanity," Bobbi says. "Someone with a guitar here, someone making love there, someone smoking a joint, someone puking his brains out, the din of the music you could hear over all of this—a bombardment of the senses."

Early Sunday morning, Uzzle, happily stuck at Woodstock, left his makeshift tent with two Leicas strapped round his neck. "Gracie Slick of Jefferson Airplane was singing, bringing up the dawn," he remembers. "And just magically this couple stood up and hugged." They kissed, smiled at each other, and the woman leaned her head on the man's shoulder. "I just had time to get off a few frames of black and white and a few of color, then the light was over and the mood was over," Uzzle says of what would become his best-known photograph. His subjects never noticed.

One night in 1970, Corcoran brought the just-released Woodstock soundtrack album to Bobbi's apartment. The cover showed a vast hillside strewn with sleepy bodies and a couple locked in a tired, happy embrace. "That's Herbie's butterfly," Nick said, his eye going to the bright spot of color. Corcoran told him to look again. "Oh, hey! That's Bobbi and me!" (Over the years, several people have seen themselves as the couple on the album cover. Corcoran, cropped out of that image, appears in the full frame, lying in an Army blanket. "There is no doubt in my mind that it's me and Bobbi and Nick Ercoline," he says.)

After that first shock of recognition, the couple gave little thought to the photograph for nearly two decades, until Life tracked down Bobbi for a 20th-anniversary article in 1989. "After hearing our story," she says today, "I think some people are disappointed that we were not..."

"...Full-fledged hippies," Nick says.

"That we were not out-and-out flower power and revolution. I was just a country girl. He was just a two-job college student." Married for 38 years with two grown sons, they now live in Pine Bush, 45 minutes southeast of Bethel. Bobbi is an elementary school nurse; Nick, a retired carpenter, is a building inspector for Orange County.

Uzzle, 71 and living in his native North Carolina, is still making photographs. His work hangs in galleries and museums around the world. And his Woodstock photograph hangs, poster-size, above Nick and Bobbi's breakfast table.

"I look at it every day," Bobbi says. "I met Nick, we fell in love and it was the beginning of my best life." The embrace may have been theirs alone, but the image captures a romantic moment in America's collective memory. If that moment would soon seem overtaken by Altamont or Kent State or Cambodia, then Nick and Bobbi's marriage offers reassurance: the Woodstock moment was real, and it endures.

Timothy Dumas , author of the true-crime book Greentown , writes frequently about the arts from his base in Connecticut.

A New Chapter in the Hope Diamond’s History

The Hope Diamond is the crown jewel of the National Museum of Natural History's internationally recognized, 10,000-strong gems collection. Ever since its arrival at the Smithsonian in 1958, visitors have flocked to see the fabled 45.52-carat brilliant blue beauty.

Today marks a new chapter in the history of the famous diamond. The New York-based jeweler Harry Winston, the firm that donated the Hope to the museum, has drafted three new modern settings for the stone. All three designs, exquisitely rendered by two of the firm's top designers, illustrate the Hope enshrined in baguette diamonds.

The decision to reset the diamond came on the heels of the 50th anniversary of Harry Winston's donation. "As we were thinking about the anniversary, we came up with a theme of giving the public a chance to see the diamond in a way they've never seen it before," says Jeffrey Post, curator of gems at the National Museum of Natural History. "How often do you have a 50th? We needed to have a celebration." The celebration, they decided, would be to display the Hope in a new way.

The challenge, then, was to create a modern design that improved the way the diamond looked. To give the Hope an updated look for its golden anniversary, the team at Harry Winston started with dozens of preliminary sketches, and eventually winnowed them down to three finalists: Renewed Hope, A Journey of Hope and Embracing Hope.

The designs, says Sandrine de Laage, vice president of design at Harry Winston, create a "very interesting contrast between the deep blue of the diamond, the brilliance of the diamond and the cooler aspects of the baguette diamonds."

Trained in France and born to a family of jewelry designers, Maurice Galli has worked for the firm for nearly two decades and is the only designer to have worked with Harry Winston, who died in 1978.

Galli says his first design, A Journey of Hope , symbolizes the American experience. In it, the stone asymmetrically joins strands of baguettes. Galli calls it a crossroad, "uniting hope and opportunity."

In Galli's second design, Embracing Hope , a ribbon of three rows of baguette diamonds hugs the Hope Diamond at the center. "The idea there was to create the very strong contrast between the brilliance, the life of the Hope itself and the look of the baguettes," he says.

Designer Rie Yatsuki created the third design, Renewed Hope , in which dangling diamonds recall the flow of water in nature, Yatsuki says. "I wanted to give a lot of brilliance to the Hope Diamond to enhance the beauty and the energy," she adds.

The museum announced today that just one of the three Harry Winston settings will be crafted. The Hope will be temporarily housed in the new setting and put on display this spring for a limited time, after which the setting will return to Harry Winston.

But which setting will be chosen? In an unusual move, museum officials say, the selection will be decided by the public, in a first-ever popular vote.

Between now and September 7, visitors will vote for one of the three designs through an online poll, hosted by the Smithsonian Channel, whose new documentary "Mystery of the Hope Diamond" is in production and due out next spring.

Alas, the new setting, unlike the diamond, isn't forever. After a limited-time, the diamond will be returned to its original, historic setting. Even the team at Harry Winston can't argue with that logic. "I think the setting is part of the heritage, it's part of what the Hope diamond is today," de Laage says.

The Hope Diamond wasn't known by that name until the 1830s, relatively late in the diamond's long history, when it was owned by the Hope family in London. The stone's journey began in India more than 300 years ago, when it was purchased by a French merchant. For generations, the stone traveled from France to London to New York and back again and then in 1910 it came to Washington, D.C., where the diamond's so-called curse evolved. It began as a tall tale that jeweler Pierre Cartier concocted to entice the interest of the wealthy and prestigious Evalyn Walsh McLean. She purchased the stone in 1912. Harry Winston bought the stone in 1949, two years after Evalyn's death, and the rest is history.

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