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The Jewish Museum of New York today opens "Alex Katz Paints Ada," a four-month show of nearly 40 paintings created by Katz since 1957. It stars Katz's wife, muse and favorite subject, Ada.
Alex Katz's impressive oeuvre includes landscapes, portraits and still life but he is best known for his ability to capture the essence of those close to him - his wife Ada, their son Vincent, and artists and friends in the couple's inner circle, all without the slightest trace of weltschmerz. These formal portraits, group scenes, and small paintings are unique in that they have survived all the great modern movements of the New York school and look better than ever.
Katz's stylized, carefully edited minimalist oils, some occasionally painted on aluminum cut-outs, describe happy young Americans in quintessential New England, all of them attractive and fashionably attired, whether in swimsuits or sundresses. No matter that Katz himself, while tall, charming and strong-faced, is neither handsome nor patrician; nor that his gentile wife Ada, who appears to keep him firmly on a short leash, is neither particularly beautiful nor a fashion clothes horse. The unemotional Ada stars in Katz's brilliantly composed compositions the way famous young ladies starred in the formalizations by Japan's great 18th-century woodblock designers, flattered via formalization.
While Katz is a Jew who was immensely proud of Israel when I knew him, there isn't anything relating to any religion in his work, other than the cult of summer pleasures. His real subject is how to make a picture with as few means as possible. The approach is almost purely Japanese. The portraits of Ada are cut by the frame, often much in the manner of Utamaro. The compositional solutions are masterly. If a double portrait of Ada and Alex appears to flatter them, this never arises as an issue because the images are exactly right in the esthetic sense.
Critics have for the most part ignored the Japanese sources of Katz's oeuvre. Instead they have dwelt on what they feel was the extraordinary role Ada Katz has played in her husband's creative life, having attained an iconic status over nearly half a century.
Exhibition curator Ruth Beesch says there is a sense of glamor about Katz's subjects, particularly Ada. She also points out that it is clear that Ada directly influences how much Katz reveals about her. Art historian Robert Storr, who wrote the catalog to this show, observes that "Katz's reality is a 'Paradise Found' of cultivated taste, aesthetic accomplishment, social ease, and marital contentment suspended above a world of clashing ideas, high-cost failures, general unrest, and sexual strife."
These paintings reveal a technique that, observes Storr, "is predicated on careful premeditation and deft execution, on slow observation followed by meticulous design and refinement of shape and outline, as well as ruthless editing of pictorial information."
These paintings are pleasing to the eye, vivid in their use of color, immediate in their connection to the viewer. They have been characterized as typifying "a new and distinctive type of realism in American art which combines aspects of both abstraction and representation."
THE EXHIBITION is organized into a series of thematic sections that focus on the artist's stylistic developments and concerns, but also on the contexts in which Ada is pictured. In Only Ada, the standing portraits are remarkably astute in their use of the subject as a vehicle for formal explorations of flatness, light, and color reminiscent of Matisse. The Ada, Ada, Ada section presents works containing multiple representations of Ada. In Friends and Family, paintings of Katz's favorite subjects, those close to him, including Ada, his son Vincent, and the circle of artists, poets and dancers who make up his social milieu, are on view.
Katz has described himself as a cool painter; he likes detachment and deliberately cultivates an impersonal look about his paintings and their subjects. In Existential Ada, works such as Blue Umbrella #2 contain references to large-scale cinematic scenes taking their cues from the commercial imagery employed for billboards while using some of the same strategies as Degas. The latter's later compositions, needless to say, were also derived from Utamaro. Katz's interest in fashion - what clothes mean and say - and Ada's timeless sense of style are evident in the paintings in the Style and Glamour section of the exhibition.
Alex Katz met Ada Del Moro in 1957; they married in 1958. Ada in Black Sweater marks the beginning of their collaboration as artist and model.
Alex Katz was born in 1927 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and after graduating from high school and serving in the Navy, studied from 1946 to 1949 at The Cooper Union in New York. In 1994, the school endowed the Alex Katz Visiting Chair in Painting, and in 2000 honored the artist with its Artist of the City award. From 1949 to 1950, Katz continued his studies at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.
The 128-page hard-cover catalog-book, Alex Katz Paints Ada, by Robert Storr and with additional essays by Lawrence Alloway and James Schuyler, contains 66 color plates and six black-and-white illustrations and is co-published by The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press. It sells for $39.95.