Alex Katz - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Thursday, February 13, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Alex Katz, 'Kate Valk', Lot 122

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, 14 February

  • Provenance

    Timothy Taylor Gallery, London
    Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2010)

  • Exhibited

    New York, MoMA PS1, Not For Sale, 11 February - 30 April 2007

  • Catalogue Essay

    Soaring over two-metres high, Alex Katz’s larger-than-life Kate, 2006, presents the sumptuous portrait of the American actress Kate Valk, dressed in character for her leading role in Eugene O’Neill’s classic 1920s tale The Emperor Jones, which was reinvisioned by Elizabeth LeCompte and produced by The Wooster Group in 2006. In its contemporary formulation, the play sees its eponymous protagonist, Brutus Jones, interpreted by Valk in blackface. While Jones, in the text, embodies a black Pullman porter whose destiny is shaken by his murder of another man in a dice game, Valk is a petite caucasian woman, dismantling each requirement to meet her personnage’s attributes. An exceptional image that has lingered in the memories of theatre-goers and art-lovers alike, Kate was moreover used as a model for the play’s poster, and went on to inspire the cyanotype print Katz created for Graphicstudio, as well as a colour screenprint of the same name. It is of further note that Katz, Valk and LeCompte share individual friendships in life, reinforcing the intimacy of the present work.

    Casting her penetrative gaze into the viewer’s own, Kate is, in the present composition, introducing the character of Jones in the altered appearance she adopted and maintained throughout the play. Yet whereas for most of her performance, the actress commanded the stage with gutteral laughs, skin-wrenching frowns, and frightning eye-rolls, in the present portrait she is captured as a muse, beautifully peaceful and composed. Delimitating the protagonist’s skin pigmentation at neck-level, Katz astutely clarifies the painted nature of Kate’s face, covered in thick, oily makeup, and standing in high contrast with the remainder of her exposed flesh. In this way, Katz wonderfully renders Elizabeth LeCompte’s daring vision, whereby the interpreter fashions, with superb precision, the simulacrum of a stereotype. Created when segregation and indeed lynching were still in effect, the character of Brutus Jones survives as a black man learning to oppress blacks himself; on the island he has retired to following his crime, he has pronounced himself emperor and is no longer the hunted, but the hunter. While Valk’s voluminous attire in the play, akin to a phony’s vision of a royal costume, floated halfway between a battered luxurious garment and a brashly coloured kimono, in the present composition Katz has represented only its upper section – flat and regal, like the portrayed protagonist herself.

    While on the surface, the choice to cast a Caucasian woman for the role of Brutus Jones may have seemed culturally insensitive, it was in fact fairly usual for the Wooster Group to elude expected decision-making in their elaboration of a theatrical adaptation. A veteran troupe known for taking an overtly experimental approach to dramaturgical texts, the Wooster Group did not miss the occasion to surprise the audience with The Emperor Jones’ new iteration, in fine garnering high praise from the public and critics alike. Characterised by The New York Times, Variety and The New Yorker as ‘flawless’, ‘astonishing’, ‘entrancing’, in turn, a number of critics furthermore argued that the decision to cast a white woman in a role written for a black man was in fact ‘uniquely sensitive’ – for it seemed impossible, given the text’s outdated mores and overarchingly racist vision, for a black actor to play the role of Jones without causing discomfort to himself or the audience (Charles Isherwood, ‘An Emperor Who Tops What O’Neill Imagined’, The New York Times, 14 March 2006, online).

    A reflection of Katz’s stunning mode of portraiture, Kate invites the viewer to observe an atypical representational approach for the artist, whereby the model eludes one-dimensionality, and instead takes on the additional facet of a fictitious role. Indeed, rather than being presented with Brutus Jones or Kate Valk as distinct entities, the viewer is confronted to a conflation of both, allowing the audience to familiarise themselves with the play through which they are connected, as well as Elizabeth LeCompte’s bold reinvention of it. The present work furthermore denotes Katz’s affinity to theatre, which he was able to cultivate since a young age as his mother was an actress in the Yiddish theatre of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As a result, Kate is at once, and in turn, the portrait of a woman, a man, and an industry, which, through the magic of an actor's performance, allows one to transform into the other.

Property from an Important Private Collection


Kate Valk, as Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones

signed and dated 'Alex Katz 06' on the overlap; further signed and erroneously dated 'Alex Katz 08' on the overlap
oil on linen
244 x 122 cm (96 1/8 x 48 in.)
Painted in 2006.

£400,000 - 600,000 

Contact Specialist

Tamila Kerimova
Specialist, Head of Day Sale, Director, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

44 20 7318 4065

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 14 February 2020