"Style and appearance are the things I'm more concerned about than what something means. I'd like to have style take the place of content, or the style be the content... I prefer it to be emptied of meaning, emptied of content." (A. Katz, quoted in M. Strand, Art of the Real: Nine American Figurative Painters, New York, 1983, pp. 124 and 129)
Working on a monumental scale and meticulously framing his portraits like movie stills, Alex Katz’s pictures evoke cinematic close-ups and highway billboard advertisements. Managing to borrow from, yet at the same time remaining independent from, the Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art movements, Katz’s work rejects the idea of speed—both of execution and of understanding. In the vein of Pollock and many of the other Abstract Expressionists Katz paints on a heroic scale. Inspired by the crisp flatness of commercial art and illustration, his highly polished technique shows almost no trace of the work’s making. A self-described surface artist, his restraint forces the viewer to experience the paintings on instinct. Retrospectively, his adherence to unfettered simplicity and bold use of color during the 1950’s was a precursor to Pop and, much like those artists that followed, he was and continues to be concerned with modernism and the idea of progress. However, his works are carefully calculated and precise and he disregards simple, manufactured, and easily digested signs in favor of enduring, subjective symbols. Symbols he claims “are much more variable than signs” (A. Katz quoted in R. Storr, C. Ratcliff and I. Blazwick, eds., "Interview 007," Alex Katz, London, 2005, p. 12). Symbols are flexible. They move, change, and refer back to other things. The other thing the artist predominantly concerns himself with is style. He attests that the subject matter is secondary where style is concerned, “I like the style to be the content. The style is cut in with the painting. Painting without style is just craft” (Ibid., p. 15).
Black Ada is a portrait of Katz’s most familiar subject, his wife. Throughout his artistic career Ada has been the primary subject of Katz’s work. Through his ongoing study of his wife, Ada’s features are instantly recognizable and synonymous with his oeuvre. The color palette in this work is much more muted than we typically see with Katz, save for the trademark red lips that pop against the dark background. He has set her apart, isolating her from any sort of narrative context while simultaneously allowing her to half-emerge from the inky blackness. What we see here is an Ada who represents not only herself, her family, and the more intimate side of the artist, but also the idea and embodiment of a beautiful woman. In this way she and the portrait Katz has painted of her are timeless. Black Ada begs the question as to how much a portrait truly reveals about a subject versus how much it conceals.
Katz's compositions are totally controlled and present the viewer with uncomplicated tableaus. The scenes themselves often recall the smiling faces of advertisements and stock characters, but the gestures--the missed or maintained eye contact, positioning and body language, and certain highlighted features--tell the true story. With Katz, the hands and the eyes play key roles. Out of a crowd, doleful eyes stare out, passive eyes stare past and animated eyes stare at you. Sometimes the viewer is met with no engagement from the subjects, in which case they become the voyeur, looking on at the frozen movie-still scene before them and constructing the context themselves. Such is the case with Katz’s 1996 work Winter (lot 510). The painting features wintery white swatches and spindly branches traversing across a neutral backdrop like abstract lines, suggesting a landscape rather than defining one. Here we see two figures, their closeness suggesting ease and a familiar, possibly even loving, relationship. Neither looks directly at each other or out toward the viewer, or even, apparently, at anything particular at all. Instead, they seem to be staring thoughtfully into the space occupying opposing lower corners of the frame. Although there is no literal space between them, that imagined space which Katz creates by separating their focus, implies a disconnect or distance that frees the viewer to project their own interpretations upon the work.