The art market has long been criticised for being conservative, so much so that it has taken nearly half a century for Alex Katz to garner the attention he deserves. The prolific American artist who is still actively making art at the age of 91 has finally passed the one-million-dollar benchmark. And this could be just the beginning.
At a February sale in London, Katz’s painting Ada and Louise (1987) was sold for US$1.29 million (974,250 GBP), nearly 72 per cent of the higher pre-sale estimate at GBP 550,000. It was the artist’s new auction record against the one that was set just months before in May 2018 at a Sotheby’s auction in New York, which sold his earlier large-scale painting The Light I (1975) for US$951,000.
Compared to other blue-chip artists emerged around a similar era, the prices for Katz’s serene, unpretentious paintings have been notoriously low. David Hockney, for example, the English artist whose works have long been drawn comparisons to those by Katz, have been receiving feverish responses in the market. His 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) made news headlines in November 2018 when it fetched US$90 million at a Christie’s sale in New York, and the work went on to become the most expensive painting by a living artist sold at auction.
The ways how the art market functions go against the intrinsic value of art at times and this is particularly true in the case of Katz.
Born in 1927 in New York to a family of Russian immigrants, Katz grew up during the times of the Great Depression. He enrolled The Cooper Union Art School in Manhattan in 1946 and held his debut solo show at Roko Gallery in 1954. He went on to define his artistic style in the later decades that anticipated the Pop Art movement while drawing inspirations from his wife Ada, his life-long muse. His artistic achievements have long been recognised, with numerous accolades under his belt and his works in the collection of some of the world’s leading institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London. In 1986, a retrospective of Katz was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Despite all these recognitions, however, Katz’s art has yet to fit in with the game of the art market, just like how he described himself in the New Yorker: “I never fit in. I’m not a Pop artist, and people can’t see my work is realistic, either.” He is also well aware of how his works have been criticised for being “simple”, as he told the Financial Times.
Perhaps living in an age saturated with chaos and information overload, simplicity has become a virtue that is overlooked. Some might be eager to remind people of such notion, Daegu Art Museum in South Korea, which is now running a solo show of Katz, or the city of New York, which has reportedly accepted Katz’s proposal to put a series of cutout sculptures of Ada on the median of Park Avenue. His 17 large-scale paintings installed at New York’s 57th Street subway station are now an integral part of the lives of city dwellers. Katz’s art might be regarded as a symbol of American culture, but its beauty speaks to a global audience. And his art is here to stay.
Vivienne Chow is a journalist and cultural critic based in Hong Kong. She is the founder of the non-profit Cultural Journalism Campus and a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.