Alex Katz - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Alex Katz, 'Gray Bow', Lot 26

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 13 February

  • Provenance

    Galleria Emilio Mazzoli, Modena
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1989

  • Exhibited

    Modena, Galleria Emilio Mazzoli, Alex Katz, April 1990 (illustrated)

  • Catalogue Essay

    With delicate intimacy and painterly prowess, Alex Katz crafts Gray Bow, 1989, as a painted homage to the female muse. Captured in a moment of introspective contemplation, Katz has animated his subject through a use of decisive brushstrokes, curated tonality and unique pictorial composition. Presenting the anonymous model in pared-back detail, the artist achieved a portrait that is at once familiar yet uncanny, eliminating all but the woman’s essential facial characteristics. This methodology of painting, in which the artist curates and curtails what is shared and what is restrained from view, suggests that the work is more an exercise in the parameters of depiction than a portrait in its own right. Indeed, in the meticulous execution of the protagonist’s stylised features – her delicately focused eyes, her gently parted lips adorned with a small but defining beauty spot, and her dark hair that caresses the nape of her neck – Katz presents not a portrait of his model but the act of painting itself, evidencing his mastery of the medium. Testament to the artist’s enduring importance within the contemporary art canon, Katz will be the subject of a career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, in 2022.

    In Gray Bow, Katz eliminates background detail from the work and instead presents the sitter against a stagnant blanket of white, prescribing for his subject a condition of liminality. She is positioned centre left of the horizontally outstretched canvas, with a field of vision that seems to extend beyond the frame. Without context of time nor place, Katz crafts a universal subject, timeless in her wistful envisioning of a horizon beyond reach. In this way, Gray Bow relates to the self-portraiture of Cindy Sherman, who in her Film Stills series disguises her own identity by posing as an actor in myriad imagined films, presenting herself as a figure who is both instantly recognisable and utterly unknown. Similarly, Gray Bow allows for varying analyses. The protagonist’s smile is at once vulnerable and charismatic, her gaze longing yet settled. Just as Katz refuses the viewer substantial detail of her features, so too does he reserve for himself the knowledge of her true nature, her fears and desires.

    While the Abstract Expressionists utilised abstraction to explicate the inherent flatness of painting, Katz exploits the capacities of figuration to call to attention the true nature of his medium. Negating the formalist traditions of figurative depiction, in which artists tirelessly sought to emulate spatial depth within the constraints of their canvas, Katz acknowledges and exploits the limitations of painting, namely, its inherent two-dimensionality. The flatness of Gray Bow reverberates across the entirety of the canvas, establishing a uniformity between content and technique. In this way, the character becomes as much a vehicle for the presentation of Katz’s artistic methodology as do the materials of paint and canvas for the enterprise of her portraiture. Such an oscillatory relationship between form and content is achieved through a meticulous process of creation, which begins with a rapid pen or pencil drawing defining the subject or motif. The preliminary sketches are then translated into large-format cartoons that are successively affixed to a primed canvas and punctured with a tool, before the artist begins the painted piece. Such processes are often repeated with Katz working from the same image to create a number of iterations in varying sizes and tonal schemes. There is a definitive confidence in the work’s execution, with an immaculate, even finish and balanced tonal shifts that establish a cinematic effect for the work, furthered by the horizontal shape of the canvas that mimics the format of a widescreen film.

    Such works are not so much truthful representations as they are experimentations into the act of artistic creation. Gray Bow, as such, is an exquisite example of Katz’s lifelong devotion to both the subject of female musedom, and his art.

Property from an Important Private European Collection


Gray Bow

signed and dated 'Alex Katz 89' on the overlap
oil on canvas
101.6 x 330.8 cm (40 x 130 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1989.

£500,000 - 700,000 

Contact Specialist

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099
[email protected]


Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 February 2020