A portrait seemingly captured from the still of a film reel, Alex Katz’s Orange Hat 2 explores a central leitmotif in his career—his wife, Ada, who he painted more than two hundred times since their marriage in 1958. Highlighting the distinctly figurative nature of his practice, this work simultaneously honors the painterly tradition of portraiture while also abstracting the subject-at-hand in a profoundly graphic nature. Orange Hat 2 illustrates how Katz exists with a dichotomy of modern and traditional, occupying his own niche in contemporary art history.
Focused on his wife, Ada, Orange Hat 2 exudes an aura of intimacy that is typical of Katz’s oeuvre. The brim of the orange hat radiates around Ada’s face, creating an almost halo-like effect that draws attention to her striking facial features. Her almond-shaped eyes have a glistening quality, bringing vibrancy to her olive-toned complexion. Her eyelashes are distinct, framing her eyes in a manner that accentuates her femininity. In a gentle pink hue, her lips come together to form a slight pout, alluding to her general indifference and mystique. There is an inherently unequivocal quality to this work with shadowing that flattens the subject’s expression both compositionally and figuratively.
Katz situates Ada within a serene, bucolic landscape, highlighting their yellow house in Maine and natural elements behind her in a brighter, more vivid color palate. Though these elements add depth and perspective to the work, Ada’s face still dominates the canvas, which spans across nearly eight feet. The closeness with which Katz captures Ada positions her as both the subject and object of the piece. She appears almost aloof, disconnected from the world around her with an expression that emphasizes an elusive quality. Neither smiling nor serious, she has a tranced, dreamlike expression that transcends the boundaries of the canvas with her off-right gaze. There is a sense of fascination and secrecy as the viewer is invited into the unknown.
As Katz said, “For me, there’s nothing more mysterious than appearances. I want to see this thing fresh, and I don’t want anything to get in the way. Appearances, for me, are a real mystery” (R. Storr, “Robert Storr in conversation with Alex Katz,” Alex Katz, London, p. 48). By breaking into the personal space of his subject, Katz is able to question the very notion of appearances, exploring the mystery that portraiture yields. In doing so, Katz creates a relatable image that investigates the tension between warm and distant, vulnerable and charismatic.
Painted in 1973, Orange Hat 2 is a seminal example of Katz’s work, paving the way for his decades-long career as a celebrated artist. The sheer scale of this particular piece magnifies the close-up cropping of Ada’s face, exemplifying her role as Katz’s model and muse that became central to his practice. With its distinctly graphic nature, Orange Hat 2 is notably more colorful and lively, typifying Katz’s foray into creating his own genre of Contemporary Art.
Though he paid homage to the Old Master tradition of portraiture, it was Katz’s departure from such tradition that defined his career. In this sense, it was Katz’s ability to straddle two worlds between the modern and traditional that allowed him to pave the way as a leading contemporary, figurative painter. As he himself expressed, “I think of myself as a modern person and I want my painting to look that way. I think of my paintings as different from some others in that they derive a lot from modern paintings as well as from older paintings…They’re traditional because all painting belongs to the paintings before them, and they’re modernistic because they’re responsive to the immediate” (R. Marshall, Alex Katz, New York, 1986, p. 22).
With his clean, graphic, and vibrant visual vernacular, Katz is considered part of the second-generation of New York School painters. His contemporaries include artists such as Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers and poets such as Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler. Through his inherently two-dimensional style, Katz was one of the first artists to reduce the hazy, gestural brushwork that had permeated figurative painting, instead maintaining the size and scale of artists associated with Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Abstraction. Katz embraced the abstraction of his contemporaries, achieving a sense of minimalism with the flatness of his works. Though he was influenced by billboard advertising and utilized vibrant, punchy colors, Katz did not align with the Pop Art movement of the time. Instead, he remained within a more painterly tradition, eventually influencing other contemporary, figurative painters such as Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig, David Salle, and Richard Prince.
Through Orange Hat 2, Katz explores the liminal space between abstraction and portraiture, achieving an increased sense of verisimilitude in his distinctive figurative style. This particular work serves as a more colorful, pastoral gesture towards Katz’s larger imprint on Contemporary Art.