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Alex Katz

Ada in Hat, 1990
Screenprint

26" x 36”
Signed & Numbered
No. 32/150
Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles

Gift of the Blanton Museum of Art, 2018. Transfer from The Contemporary Austin, Camille and Dave Lyons

 

Alex Katz is associated with the second generation New York School painters and poets who came to prominence in the 1960s, including Fairfield Porter, Larry Rivers, and Ted Berrigan, as well as first generation New York Poets Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler. Although Katz is primarily known as a painter, he began what would become a prolific engagement with printmaking in 1965, producing over 400 editions throughout his career, including woodcuts, lithographs, etchings, and screenprints.

Katz’s paintings and prints fall into two broad categories—portraiture and landscapes. What they share in common is a flatness of field, a simplicity of color palette, an economy of line, and a photographic sense of capturing intimate moments in time—intimate, but not very revealing as far as emotional, psychological, or narrative depth is concerned. One might say his pared-down presentation captures the essence of his subjects, whether individuals, groups of friends, or natural settings. As is the case with the Pop Art of the era, Katz’s work presents a kind of cool emotional detachment which runs contrary to the frenetic energy of the first generation New York School artists, the Abstract Expressionists.

Katz’s most oft-depicted subject is his wife, Ada. First painted by Katz in 1957, Ada appears in over 250 works spanning nearly fifty years. Katz painted her four times in 1961, including two small oil paintings, one titled White Hat, the other, Ada in Pillbox Hat. The 1990 screenprint Ada in Hat is a transliteration of the latter from one medium into another, a practice not uncommon among American artists of the post-World War II era who sometimes recreated earlier paintings through the printmaking process (see, for example, Vernon Fisher’s 1990 Scenes from the American West, also housed in the WFMA’s permanent collection).

Ada in Hat, which retains the same color palate as the original painting, was pulled in an edition of 150 prints at Styria Studio in New York, the same year Katz completed a large close-up portrait of Ada on canvas titled Gray Day, which depicts her in sunglasses and red ball cap seated along a shoreline. In Ada in Hat, we see her looking very much like Jackie Kennedy with the flipped up hair and pillbox hat made ubiquitous by the First Lady, who actually wore a pillbox to the 1961 presidential inauguration. Likewise, Ada wears, with Jackie-like grace, a simple yet elegant tan coat and red blouse that matches her lipstick and the hat’s ribbon. It is difficult with today’s eyes to not also think of the countless images of the stoic Jackie Kennedy of two years later (1963) as America watched her watching her late husband driven by in state after his assassination.

An interesting counterpoint against which to discuss Katz’s portraiture is Cindy Sherman’s series of black-and-white photographic self-portraits from the 1970s known as the Film Stills, in which she posed as a variety of unnamed yet oddly recognizable subject types. Sherman and Katz’s work is similar in that they both capture moments frozen in time; however, unlike Sherman’s work, which explores issues of identity, class, sexual objectification, and physical and emotional abuse, Katz’s portraits appear to capture the daily mundanities of the white upper-middle class in all its complacent civilized domesticity. While Sherman’s subjects are often seen domestically in moments of intense turmoil, appearing disheveled, frightened, and emotionally broken, Katz’s tend to be impeccably dressed, crisp, and emotionally placid. Indeed, Ada—as is the case with many of Katz’s subjects—is often presented in moments of repose in which she is simply looking, contemplating, or even resting.

Another similarity between these seemingly unrelated artists is that Sherman’s photographs provide scant narrative prompts for viewers to grab hold of (an airmail letter, say, or cigarette or hat ), so too with Katz’s portraits—they invite us to imagine the scenarios immediately preceding and following the moments captured in time. Although portraits such as Ada in Hat tend not to reveal much about the inner lives of their subjects, they prompt us to use them as a springboard for contemplating human nature. They are so flat, so matter of fact; their hair, perfect; their skin, unnaturally smooth. What are they doing? What just happened? Did we miss it? What is Ada looking at? What lies behind her dark brown eyes? As with much of Sherman’s work, Ada has been rendered to the point of stylization, yet somehow she remains undeniably human, unique. As New York Poet Frank O’Hara said of Ada, “she is a presence and at the same time a pictorial conceit of style.”

 


Works Consulted

Beattie, Ann. Alex Katz. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1987.

O’Hara, Frank. Art Chronicles, 1954-1966. New York: George Braziller, 1975. 147.

Storr, Robert. Alex Katz Paints Ada. Yale UP, 2006.

www.alexkatz.com/biography/narrative_bio


Ada in Hat from the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Falls Museum of Art at MSU Texas

 
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