Alex Katz - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "Part of what I’m about is seeing how I can paint the same thing differently, instead of the different things the same way."
    —Alex Katz

    A monumental triptych created at the height of Alex Katz’s career, The Grey Dress, 1982 is emblematic of the artist’s singular painterly practice that transforms his figural subjects into timeless visual icons. Here, the artist brings together three women, each modeling a gray dress, who fashionably pose at different angles with their hands on their hips and look directly at the viewer. Painted in 1982, the present work marks the pivotal moment in Katz’s career when he began actively exploring a multi-panel format for his large-scale canvases—prefiguring his heroically scaled Pas de Deux, 1983, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine and Summer Triptych, 1985, Private Collection. One of the artist’s largest works to come to auction to date, The Grey Dress ambitiously captures Katz’s fascination with surface and appearance in both subject and painting, embodying the heart of Katz’s practice: “The subject is style – line, color, how the whole thing is put together. Ultimately, content is not important. The style is what is important.”i


    Alex Katz, The Black Dress, 1960, Museum Brandhorst, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich. Image: bpk Bildagentur / Museum Brandhorst / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

     Embodying the apex of the artist’s mature practice, The Grey Dress fuses Katz’s painterly investigations of the 1960s and 1970s that led to his widespread recognition in the 1980s, marked by the artist’s first institutional survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1986. The present work at once recalls and advances Katz’s iconic painting The Black Dress, 1960—which reflected his first explorations of including multiple perspectives as a substitute for suggesting three-dimensionality without eschewing the flatness of form—by incorporating various figures from his oeuvre and employing a triptych format. Here, the central figure is taken from a maquette of a woman named Anastasia for his major Harlem Station mural commissioned by the Chicago Transit Authority and completed in 1984. The left figure, known as Laura, is likely Laura Halzack, the prima ballerina of the Paul Taylor Dance Company with whom Katz collaborated in the 1960s during his well-known partnership with Paul Taylor in designing costumes and sets. 


    [left] Raphael, The Three Graces, 1504-1505, Musée Condé, Chantilly. Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY
    [right] Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers, 1925. Tate, London. Image: © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    "They are at once actors and real people whose inner lives shine through no matter what their positioning…Katz is obviously orchestrating something that is coherent aesthetically to him when he joins canvases together...They seem to form a whole that is larger than the sum of the parts."
    —Ann Beattie

    Indeed it was this collaboration that sparked Katz’s interest in the representation of motion, a signature theme in the artist’s work. Calling to mind stop-motion photography and the Cubists’ fusion of multiple perspectives in simultaneous view, the present work reveals Katz’s unique painterly language of individually depicting each figure’s pose as separate and motionless, while coalescing the overall composition with remarkable coherence through the triptych format. By conceiving The Grey Dress as a triptych, the artist not only uses a historical compositional device typically deployed to suggest narrative or a sequence, but further conjures the traditional art historical trope of the three graces. Situating itself within the lineage of 20th century Modernist revivals of Renaissance painting as did the work of Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, among others, the present work captures how “I put the stills together like a Renaissance painter would to get motion,” in Katz’s words. “[My work] relates to historic painting. I’m a traditional painter.”ii  


    Richard Prince, Untitled (three women with their heads cast down), 1980, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image:  © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © Richard Prince. Courtesy of the artist

     "I can’t think of anything more exciting than the surface of things."
    —Alex Katz

    As Ann Beattie observed of the present work, “What is obviously presented to us for judgment, three different gray dresses, makes us think about gray dresses and even about the women who model them, because we have a frame of reference for this: the models do not necessarily have to relate; surfaces rather than psychology are the modus operandi.”iii For Katz, the concern with surfaces is at once literal and metaphorical—both the painterly surface and the surface of our appearances at a given moment or what we project to the world. It is through this sensibility that Katz, as a rising artist in the 1950s, forged his own visual lexicon, departing from the nonrepresentational, passionate gestures of the Abstract Expressionists. And notwithstanding the many connections to made his Pop contemporary Andy Warhol, Katz did not look to American icons as his figures, but rather transformed figures from his immediate circle into American icons—and thus perhaps inadvertently produced timeless imagery despite “want[ing] to paint the now...the immediate present, as he expressed, “and that’s what consciousness is.”iv 


    Through the signature cool detachment of his figures embodied in their expressionless countenances, here Katz invites viewers not into the psychology of his subjects but rather into our own subjective minds by presenting choices of style and taste with fashion. In Beattie’s words, “In a case where the gray dress exists in his mind as gray dresses, we are offered a lineup of three possibilities... Which one do we choose? Which woman do we relate to? We are always window-shopping; we are all actors to the extent that we consider potential images and identities for ourselves.”v


    i Alex Katz, quoted in Anna McNay, “Alex Katz: ‘Ultimately, content is not important. The style is what is important,’” Studio International, October 23, 2017.
    ii Alex Katz, quoted in Rob Pruitt, “Alex Katz,” Interview Magazine, May 3, 2016, online.
    iii Ann Beattie, Alex Katz, New York, 1987, p. 52.
    iv Alex Katz, quoted in “Alex Katz,” Thaddeus Ropac, artist page.
    v Ann Beattie, Alex Katz, New York, 1987, p. 52.

    • Provenance

      Marlborough Gallery Inc., New York
      Benjamin Mangel Gallery, Philadelphia (acquired from the above in January 1984)
      Private Collection, Philadelphia
      Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2006

    • Exhibited

      New York, Marlborough Gallery Inc., Alex Katz: Recent Paintings, March 5–April 2, 1983, no. 10, p. 3 (illustrated, pp. 24-25; detail illustrated on the front cover)
      Philadelphia, Benjamin Mangel Gallery, Alex Katz, April 6–April 30, 1984

    • Literature

      Milton Esterow, ed., ARTnews, March 1983, vol. 82, no. 3, p. 16 (illustrated)
      Alexandra Anderson, "Editor's Choice: Selected Gallery Previews," Portfolio, March/April 1983, vol. V, no. 2, p. 24 (illustrated)
      Victoria Donohoe, "Art: A Look at the Highly Styled Realism of Alex Katz," The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 1984, p. 4-D
      Ann Beattie, Alex Katz, New York, 1987, pl. 15, pp. 7, 51 (illustrated, pp. 60-62; collection credit erroneously listed)
      Patricia Pate Havlice, World Painting Index: Second Supplement, 1980-1989, vol. I, Metuchen, 1995, p. 538
      Daniel Morris, Remarkable Modernisms: Contemporary American Authors on Modern Art, Amherst, 2002, pp. 99, 111
      Shinichi Fukui, Modern Japanese Painting Techniques, trans. Wendy Uchimura, Tokyo, 2022, p. 93

Property from a Private New York Collection


The Grey Dress

oil on canvas, triptych
each 78 x 60 1/8 in. (198.1 x 152.4 cm)
overall 78 x 180 3/8 in. (198.1 x 458.2 cm)

Painted in 1982.

Full Cataloguing

$1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for $2,208,000

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022