‘She’s got perfect gestures. And she’s a classic American beauty—full lips, a short nose, and wide eyes. She’s also a European beauty. When I started to paint Ada, I was influenced by Picasso’s Dora Maar.’
– Alex Katz
‘Maybe spending every summer in Maine with Ada, where I paint from nature, gives me fresh insight when I come back to the city. It’s a perfect balance for me.’
– Alex Katz
‘Artists were looking at their predecessors, but there were not a lot of them who’d continued in that fgurative zone consistently, with
[Katz’s] level of detachment… Coolness is something that artists of all generations admire – cool in the sense of detachment, but [also] cool in the sense of hip.’
– Adam Weinberg
Painted in 1987, Alex Katz’s Ada and Louise captures the buoyant optimism of a perfect spring day. The sky is a dazzling blue, and a few, thin clouds trail across the pristine expanse. On the left of the composition, Katz’s wife, Ada, lounges gracefully, her black hair glinting in the sunlight. She faces Louise, her mother, who, half-hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat and pink jumper, seems on the verge of speaking. Together, the women relax on bench facing the Atlantic; this is Lincolnville Beach, just down the road from the Katzs’ house. Katz has worked from a studio in Maine since the mid- 1950s, and Ada and Louise evinces a particularly New England aesthetic of crisp whites set against the saturated colours of sea and sky.
Katz is regularly characterised as the quintessential American painter for his vivid and direct visual vocabulary. He grew up steeped in the New York art world of the 1940s and 1950s, but his career has boldly defend the conventions of the time. Although deferential to Abstract Expressionism, Katz shied away from Action painting’s emotive aesthetic, instead championing figuration by embracing the small, everyday moments of his life. Still, he did not entirely reject abstraction, evidenced in his treatment of small details. A lock of hair or a yellow blossom are often simplified into uncomplicated geometries that stand in for greater narrative considerations. In Ada and Louise, sky and water are fattened into crisp rectangles which nevertheless evoke the breeze-blown atmosphere of the Atlantic coast. While his works embrace representation, Katz’s themes are more complex than they initially appear. Ada and Louise ostensibly depicts two women in conversation, but the painting is also self-refexive, looking backwards to Impressionist canvases of plein air scenes. Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Pierre-August Renoir all made subjects of their surrounding realities. Like his predecessors, Katz, too, desires to represent light in paint, explaining that ‘capturing fast light is like painting the immediate present which, to me, is painting eternity… if you can get into the immediate present, then there’s no past and there’s no future. That’s what the immediate tense is. I always try to get that in my paintings’ (A. Katz interviewed by C. Hazelton, Aesthetica, October 6, 2012). Unlike Impressionist works, Katz’s portraits are fltered through the detached lens of Pop art: aloof and wry, they are consciously aware of their status as painted subjects. Indeed, with their bright colour palette, fatly graphic lines, and billboard size, Katz embodies a Pop aesthetic, if not its thematic concerns.
With the hope of enveloping the viewer within his painted panoramas, Katz shifted his attention away from pure portraiture towards landscape paintings in the late-1980s. Ada and Louise signals this urn, and Katz placed equal emphasis on both the women and the land: even as Ada and Louise relate to one another, they have something in common with the clouds drifting leisurely across the still sky. There is a ‘generic sameness’ to both the figures and the terrain, yet despite the simplified forms, individuality is expressed nonetheless (M. James, ‘Commentaries’ in D. Sylvester (ed.), Alex Katz: Twenty Five Years of Painting, exh. cat., Saatchi Gallery, London, p. 57). Ada and Louise are, in many ways, generic types, yet they are also wholly realised people, with unique histories embedded in their bodies. In part, this is owing to the cinematic size of the painting which demands a related story. ‘Scale,’ wrote critic Sanford Schwartz, ‘isn’t just a question of canvas size – it’s a way of flling the size with expression and handling that has the broadness, the grandeur, even, of the dimensions’; Katz’s paintings have this magic, magisterial quality (S. Schwartz, ‘Alex Katz So Far’, Art International, vol. 17, Lugano, December 15, 1973, n. p.). Ada and Louise is suggestive of a whole, impactful narrative, and like the cinema, this painting transforms an ordinary moment into the mythic and monumental. Katz renders the quotidian both strikingly elegant and devastatingly cool.