Joy, Love and Peace: The Peter B. Lewis Collection

New York

Alex Katz
B. 1927

signed on the reverse
oil on canvas
72 by 54 in.
182.9 by 137.2 cm.
Painted in 1983.
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Marlborough Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in May 1987



As early as the late 1950s, New York based artist Alex Katz had established his trademark style. Inspired by Matisse, Katz flattened form and heightened color, thinning his oils and significantly increasing the size of his canvases. In an era obsessed with abstraction, Katz fearlessly focused on portraiture, looking at the world around him, choosing as his models the people, places and things he knew, and shaping his glossy style with reference to memories. Katz respected the integrity of his craft, and retained classic painterly qualities even as his canvases became smoother during the 1960s and 1970s. In order to create depth and weight in his compositions he relied less on brushwork and more on the juxtaposition of flat planes of color and sharply edged lines. “I’m interested in painting new paintings,” Katz said. “I wanted to take a Newman or a de Kooning and knock it off the wall... [I’m most proud of] my surface. It’s one of the most original things a painter can do. It’s not in your face. It’s a recessive part of the painting. People don’t even notice it unless they’re painters. Painters can look at it, and I say, ‘Eat your heart out.’” (Anneliese Jakimides, “Katz’s Eye,” Bangor Metro, Bangor, ME, September 2008, pp. 36-39).

Katz has made the point that his art is not of the moment, or dedicated to the passing scene. Many of his canvases, however, emphasize specifics of clothing, hair-styles and the more intangible elements of personality, time and place. This is true in the present work, which is a version of one of five panels comprising his monumental 1983 mural, Pas de Deux. In the series, Katz has focused his concern on the style of his subjects, specifically the clothing that each wore. All of the women are featured wearing Normal Kamali coats, and the men are displayed in sharply tailored suits and ties. “Style and appearance are the things I’m more concerned about than what something means,” Katz says. “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.” (Richard Marshall, ”Sources of Style,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Alex Katz, New York, 1986, p. 13).

This particular work, Vicki and Wally, features New York City residents Vicki Hudspith and Wally Turbeville. Hudspith was a poet and Turbeville was a lawyer with Goldman Sachs. In 1982, Hudspith had joined forces with Katz while directing the play Shopping and Waiting, for which Katz designed the set. Here, the couple is portrayed in a tight embrace, Hudspith’s narrow eyes staring blankly ahead while her husband, eyes closed, leans in to kiss her cheek. Unlike the version of this composition in Pas de Deux, the figures are not vertically cropped, and we see the entirety of their profiles against the dark background. Although set in the evening, Katz's gentle manipulation of light, shadow, pattern and color give the composition the same complexity and depth as brighter subjects. Hudspith’s bleach blond hair is complemented by the yellow in her husband’s tie, but otherwise in contrast to the dark shades of the picture. The couple exhibits a style and sophistication specific to their personal era, but Katz denies the viewer further clues about their narrative. Once again, the subject of the work turns away from the figures depicted and back towards the method of depiction, or the painted surface itself. The forms are strong and simple, the planes of are big and bold, and the canvas reflects a coolness that is fundamentally Katz.

Joy, Love and Peace: The Peter B. Lewis Collection

New York