Alex Katz’s arresting January 2 represents a bridge between Katz’s earlier, highly stylized portraits with his later, large scale landscapes. The present work, imbued with a nostalgic feeling that is both familiar and cold, is comprised of a singular, 90-square inch canvas divided into two distinctly asymmetrical planes that create a trompe l'oeil diptych effect. This dramatic crop, archetypal of Alex Katz's best work, is cinematic in nature and presents both interior and exterior on the same picture plane.
On the right, a tranquil Manhattan winter scene unfolds in various hues of gray. What few leaves remain on the multi-tiered tree have been coated with a light dusting of snow and bristle gently against the deep winter breeze. The calming view of New York's first snow contrasts deeply against the technicolor Ada, Katz's wife and eternal muse. Her porcelain skin, rosy from the cool outdoors, is accentuated by bold, crimson lips, hazel eyes that beckon and piercing violet accents that separate this particular muse from all other women. For Katz, Ada is everything: she is both unattainable beauty and familiar confidant; aloof, unknown model and warm mother. She is Roy Lichtenstein's idealized comic book heroine and Cindy Sherman's damsel in distress. Katz gushes, "She’s both a European beauty and an American beauty. She’s like Dora Maar, the same kind of face, but then her smile is the American-beauty smile" (the artist quoted in Leslie Camhi, "Painted Lady" in The New York Times, 27 August 2006, p. 6006158). Always painted with an aura of admiration, Katz picks up the subtleties of Ada's sartorial choices; she has matched her wool hat to the lilac geraniums on her scarf, small pops of color to mitigate the gray outdoors.
In the late 1980s, Katz shifted his attention away from pure portraiture to explore the myriad possibilities of landscape painting. Soon Katz became so enchanted by the fusing of these two themes that he dedicated an entire series of paintings to experimenting with these tropes. As Katz explained of the series, "It started in the movies. I was at Film Forum, and they were showing a Russian movie. People walking down an alley with trees around them. I thought it would be a great image for a winter painting. So I went down to city hall and painted it outdoors. It was a cold winter day and the air was kind of a little heavy, so the sun was trying to come through. I painted that en plein air. I liked the image a lot, so I asked Ada to come down and I did a sketch. I started with a relatively small landscape, and then I think I did the large one because it seemed like something that would go large successfully. I just thought I’d try the split. It just seemed like it would be an interesting idea” (the artist quoted in Julia Felsenthal, "Alex Katz on His Painting January 3," Vogue, June 2015, online). Typical of Katz's particular brand of realism, the seemingly shallow spatial plane and sharp cropping device paired with the sheer size of the canvas owe much to the crisp manner of commercial art and illustration with further inspiration drawn from film, advertising and fashion.
About Katz's idiosyncratic style, Donald Kuspit writes: "Katz’s portraits are true to the way we experience others. They eloquently convey the tension between the determinate outer appearance and the indeterminate inner reality of someone known only from the outside. Katz seems to make the shell of a person’s outer reality his or her complete substance, as though the person had no inner substance. Yet the quirkiness of Katz’s appearances alludes to that inner substance…For all their everydayness, Katz’s figures have an air of transient strangeness to them, suggesting the mystery of their inner existence, perhaps even to themselves” (Donald Kuspit, Alex Katz Night Paintings, New York 1991, p. 8).
Katz began painting in in New York City in the late 1950s, forging a style that was distinctly his own during the afterglow of the Abstract Expressionists. Given the timing to the start of his career, Katz is often mislabeled as a Pop Artist: his depictions of beautiful imagery in his signature, flattened style on large, nearly billboard-scaled canvases, align him with the movement that took influence from the mainstream media and omnipresent consumerist products. In the present work, Ada’s glamorous red lips immediately recall Warhol's infamous 1962 diptych, Marilyn Monroe’s Lips, comprised of repetitions of the iconic actress’ lips. The two-panel format in Warhol's masterpiece seems to have influenced Katz beyond just the choice of lip color for Ada; Warhol's grayscale and pink panels are mirrored in January 2, undoubtedly a nod to an image Katz would have been incredibly familiar with.
Monumental and invitingly impersonal, Katz’s realism reflects his training in commercial art. By increasing the scale of his works, reducing perspective, eliminating extraneous detail and sharpening contours, he has created a definitive and idiosyncratic method of painting. The artist remarked, "People say painting is real and abstract. Everything in paint that’s representation is false because it’s not representational, it’s paint. We speak different languages and have different syntax. The way I paint, realistic is out of abstract painting as opposed to abstract style. So I use a line, a form and a color. So my contention is that my paintings are as realistic as Rembrandt’s…it was realistic painting in its time. It’s no longer a realistic painting. Realism’s a variable. For an artist, this is the highest thing an artist can do – to make something that’s real for his time, where he lives. But people don’t see it as realistic, they see it as abstract. But for me it’s realistic” (Alex Katz in conversation with David Sylvester, March 1997, online). Rendered in Katz's impossibly cool, reductive style, with its grand scale, bold brushwork and iconic flattened perspective, January 2 is a superlative example of the artist’s characteristic aesthetic and subject.
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