Alex Katz - 20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 14, 2019 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Alex Katz, 'Alexandra', Lot 42

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 14 October

  • Provenance

    Marlborough Gallery, New York
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    Painted in 1984, Alexandra is a particularly ethereal example of Alex Katz’s larger-than-life portraits. Allusive yet unknowable, the eponymous character is plunged in a field of light, her face dominating the full expanse of the composition while she casts a meditative gaze into the distance. With her crystalline-blue eyes, rose lips and pristine complexion, Alexandra falls within Katz’s pantheon of graceful female characters that strive to capture an idealized form of beauty, rendered with the artist’s characteristic elimination of high detail. Oscillating between realism and fiction, her appearance is made all-the-more enthralling by the enigmatic nature of her identity: she is at once unknown and familiar, embodying a perception rather than a palpable reality. "I think my painting can be a little shocking in all that it leaves out," the artist once declared. "But what happens is that the mind fills in what's missing. It's about being able to see something in a specific way. Painting is a way of making you see what I saw" (Alex Katz, quoted in "I prefer Stan Getz to Sartre", The Irish Times, March 3, 2007, online).

    With its captivating subject and alluringly palette, Alexandra exemplifies Katz's ability to infuse reality with painterly passages of fantasy. Over the course of his career, Katz’s characters have comprised friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and fashion models, whilst incorporating art historical, theatrical and cinematic connotations that systematically transcend the realm of mere representation. In Alexandra, the protagonist calls comparisons with references both old and new, her beauty bearing notes at once inherently classical and potently cinematic. On the one hand, Alexandra’s celestial, quasi-mythological features – namely her blue eyes and delicate golden locks – are evocative of Botticelli’s Venus in The Birth of Venus, 1485-1486; on the other, her charismatic presence, emphasized by the face-level angle from which Katz has chosen to capture her, bears an irrepressible contemporary edge. The enlargement and cropping of her face recall the techniques employed in 1950s Hollywood films, whereby the lead female characters’ soft, delectable features are seized from close-up. As a result, Alexandra recalls such eminent actresses as Jayne Mansfield, Anita Ekberg and Kim Novak, whose beauteous figures were often spotlit or formally glamorized in slow motion. The cinematic facet within the painting signals the solidified shift of Katz’s creative direction, which, from the 1970s onwards, became increasingly in line with flourishing technical developments, as well as the widespread nature of cinema and billboard advertising.

    Yet despite the painting’s inherent cinematic sensibility, paired with the youthful thrust radiated by Katz’s model, the artist’s style of portraiture pays a debt to graphic two-dimensionality. While it is undeniable that Katz is attentive to figurative verisimilitude, he simplifies and smooths her features to the point of impenetrable sleekness. In the 1950s, he was among the first to reduce the gestural brushwork that pervaded figurative painting, whilst maintaining the size and scale associated with Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Abstraction. As such, his compositions bore an ambivalence that aligned them with Pop and abstraction. Departing from the New York School’s hazy and energetic figurative style, he developed a clean and vibrant visual language, influenced in part by the aesthetics of billboard advertising. Here, he has employed a luminous color palette and soft contrasts to increase an impression of dreamlike realism, whilst maintaining a minimalist sense of flatness. Focusing on Alexandra’s characteristically aggrandized features, the present composition is as though glazed, crystallized as an immaculate still. With the protagonist’s luminous presence, seemingly sunlit by Katz’s idiosyncratic gesture, Alexandra exudes warmth as well as an unknowable sense of intimacy, demonstrating the artist’s talent in depicting otherworldly beauty.

Property from a Prominent Private American Collection



oil on linen
66 1/8 x 78 1/8 in. (168 x 198.5 cm.)
Painted in 1984.

$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for $620,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th C. & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 November 2019