Alex Katz’s singular mode of realism has defined the shared visual vocabulary of the second half of the twentieth century. With their flat solemnity and nonchalant elegance, Katz’s portraits conjure a sense of nostalgia, capturing the introspective, silent moments that precede narrative action. Born in Brooklyn in 1927 and educated at The Cooper Union and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Katz settled on figuration as the primary focus of his artistic output from the beginning of his career. Emerging in the New York art scene of the 1950s, which was dominated by the titans of Abstract Expressionism, Katz brazenly forged his own path, eschewing the passion and primacy of gesture inherent to abstraction, to craft flat, polished scenes, awash in fields of color that captured the sensation of lived experience.
Double Ada is a captivating example of Alex Katz’s most important subject, his muse and wife, Ada. Katz presents Ada from two vantage points against a smooth, verdant background. With its monumental scale and energy, Ada boldly jumps off the canvas’ surface. Double Ada is a painting defined by duality and opposing elements; the two portrayals of Ada are reflections rather than duplication of each other, and the small variances in the depictions on either end of the canvas are made starker by their subtlety. She is mature and holds her ground. He does not seek to create a narrative, but rather a sense of wonder and intrigue, allowing the enigmatic nature of his subject to shine through. In signature Katz style, the composition is divided by a strong horizontal and vertical architectonic element, anchoring the work with a geometric foundation that recalls Minimalist Abstraction.
By increasing the scale of his works, flattening the images, eliminating extraneous detail and sharpening contours, he has created a definitive and idiosyncratic style. 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” (the artist in conversation with David Sylvester, March 1997, online).
Typical of the artist’s oeuvre, 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. With its grand scale, bold brushwork and iconic flattened style, Double Ada is a superlative example of the artist’s characteristic aesthetic and subject.
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