Alex Katz - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Wednesday, October 2, 2019 | Phillips

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    Alex Katz, 'Blue Umbrella I', Lot 14

    20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 2 October 2019

  • Provenance

    Marlborough Gallery, New York
    Private Collection
    Waddington Galleries, London
    Arij Gasiunasen Fine Art, Palm Beach (acquired from the above in May 1993)
    Collection of Rena Rowan, Palm Beach
    Private Collection, New York (thence by descent)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Intimate, delicate, and deeply atmospheric, Blue Umbrella I, 1972, sheds light on Alex Katz’s preferred model and muse, his wife Ada. The first iteration from a series of two, this sumptuous, moody canvas is exceptional both in pictorial rendition, and in subject matter. On the one hand, it employs Katz’s characteristic approach to figuration – cool in appearance and hyper-meticulous in design; on the other, it boasts a theme that the artist has profusely alluded to throughout his career, turning Ada’s repeated appearance into something of a leitmotif. Signifying the importance of the series within the artist’s oeuvre, Blue Umbrella I’s sister painting Blue Umbrella II – a quasi-exact rendering of the present composition in larger dimensions – was used as the front cover for the catalogue of Katz’s major solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art, New York, travelling to the Center for the Fine Arts, Miami, in 1986. Musing on the importance and prominence of the painting’s theme – Katz painted his wife more than two hundred times since their marriage in 1958 – Robert Marshall contended that Ada can be read as the perfect, timeless muse: ‘a symbol of beauty, sorrow, mystery, coldness, or desire’ (Robert Marshall, Alex Katz, New York, 1986, p. 22).

    Calm and composed amidst slanting drops of rain, Ada is here pictured close-up, her titular umbrella cropped at the margins of the canvas. She is as much the subject of the painting as her striking facial features and sartorial accessories: her pristine rose lips, her penetrating, almond-shaped eyes, and her stylish chiffon à la française are given extreme precision and detail, dominating the canvas as elements to be viewed independently. As a whole, Ada represents a familiar subject imbued with an unnamable elusive quality; she is aloof, remote, disconnected from the torrential rain surrounding her, like an urban siren or a 1960s cinema star haloed by the camera’s captivated lens. ‘Such is [Ada’s] deep reserve that you can spend a very pleasant hour tête-à-tête with her and still wonder if you have ever really met’, wrote Leslie Camhi (Leslie Camhi, ‘Painted Lady’, The New York Times, 27 August 2006, online). Both warm and distant, vulnerable and charismatic, Ada channels a form of painterly introversion that nonetheless commands the viewer’s gaze in its beauty, poetry and mystery.

    Reminiscent of female muses that have occupied seminal canvases, photographs, and films in visual culture, Ada’s appearance eschews mere idealism as she additionally puts on an air of irreverent performativity. Profoundly ambivalent, she stands halfway between Auguste Renoir’s Lise ou la femme à l'ombrelle, 1867, and Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #21, 1978. ‘This guy [Alex Katz] that I was interested in was looking at my eyes, my ears, my shoulders’, Ada once remarked. ‘The whole thing was just very sensual. But then it became just this thing that he did. I was sitting and he was painting, and that was it’ (Ada Del Moro Katz, quoted in Calvin Tomkins, ‘Alex Katz’s Life in Art’, The New Yorker, 27 August 2018, online). Having been at the centre of Katz’s painterly lens for decades, Ada also invites comparison with such eminent muses as Dora Maar, captured by Pablo Picasso’s enamoured gaze, or Jeanne Hébuterne, lovingly rendered by Amedeo Modigliani’s hand. In Jeanne Hébuterne (Au chapeau), 1919, the titular model’s regal silhouette seems a precursor to Ada’s graceful and elegant traits in the present work. Modigliani, like Katz after him, brought attention to his lover’s fashion sense, whereby ‘allure is less a matter of clothes than of how she wears them’ (Leslie Camhi, ‘Painted Lady’, The New York Times, 27 August 2006, online).

    Blue Umbrella I’s complex composition further conveys art historical motifs that have fascinated artists across time. The droplets in the depicted scene serve to vivify the painting’s inherent playfulness; they mark a nod to Roy Lichtenstein’s crying female figures, Man Ray’s glass tears, and Cindy Sherman’s staged melancholy. Some of them are also dispatched randomly, providing an echo to Jackson Pollock’s painterly splatters. But it is perhaps the dominating presence of Ada’s umbrella that is most evocative as a standalone theme. With it, a string of seminal painterly icons comes to mind: Claude Monet’s La plage de Trouville, 1870, residing in The National Gallery, London, Gustave Caillebotte’s Rue de Paris, temps de pluie, 1877, today in The Art Institute of Chicago, but also René Magritte’s homage to the German philosopher Hegel, in Les vacances de Hegel, 1958. In the present work, Ada is isolated from the symbolic elements that surround her, as each of them are made microcosmic investigations to delve into independently.

    The subject of Ada is of paramount importance in Katz’s oeuvre; one of the rare painterly realms where content and form are treated in equal measure. The artist’s first-ever portrait of his wife, an eponymous painting where she is seen sitting in a three-quarter pose, was created a year before the pair got married. Now residing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it presents the model in a serene and introspective inflection – reflecting Katz’s already well-established perception of Ada, ahead of their shared life. Twenty years on, Blue Umbrella I seems more assured than its predecessor, both in form and content. Ada’s features are delineated with more clarity and conviction, and the colours are distributed more generously throughout the canvas. She is renewed through the sheer force of their intimacy, but also thanks to the technical developments that flourished throughout the 1960s, imbuing the work with a filmic quality which permeates Katz’s work. Presented close-up with an immaculate finish, the elements that constitute the present painting brim with an irrepressible cinematic gleam, that signals the solidified shift of Katz’s creative direction. Only adding to the painting’s cinematic effect, Katz has placed the tilted raindrops surrounding Ada strategically, so that some of them appear to be running down her cheeks. As such, she seems to embody the scope, scale and presentation of Michelangelo Antonioni or Federico Fellini’s characters, ‘hardly more a presence than an impact on emptiness’ (Jack Kroll, ‘Reviews and Previews: Alex Katz’, ARTNews, vol. 61, February 1963, p. 11).

    Despite the painting’s inherent cinematic sheen, and the vitality of Katz’s model, there is something deeply two-dimensional about the artist’s style of portraiture. 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 Colour Field Abstraction. As such, his compositions bore an ambivalent feel that aligned them with multifarious styles of painting, namely Pop and Abstraction, whilst retaining a unique formal inflection. Here, Katz has employed a rich colour palette and striking contrasts to increase verisimilitude, yet a minimalist sense of flatness comes to the fore. Departing from the New York School’s hazy and energetic figurative style, Katz developed a clean, graphic, and vibrant visual language, influenced in part by the aesthetics of billboard advertising, a purely post-modern style that a number of his contemporaries, including Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig, David Salle and Richard Prince, are indebted to in their painterly work.

    Focusing on Ada’s characteristically aggrandised features, the present work is as though glazed, crystalised as an immaculate still, seemingly captured from the reel of a film. In order to achieve such frozen, glamourised portraits, Katz runs through a minutious process of painting, that usually begins with a rapid pen or pencil drawing. With these preliminary sketches, he defines a subject or motif – commonly a lone figure or object in the landscape – and subsequently creates drawings and large-format cartoons that he successively affixes to a primed canvas, and punctures with a tool, before finally beginning to paint. Fascinated by the endless possibilities of a single image, Katz then cultivates his imagery in varying sizes and colour-palettes. The present image is repeated in larger dimensions in Blue Umbrella II, and finally published as two sets of lithographs in 1979-1980, in colour and in grayscale.

    Spotlighting Katz’s favourite subject, Blue Umbrella I is a sumptuous example from the artist’s prodigious painterly opus. It is conceived as an ode to his timeless muse, who, despite continuous changes in American society, remained her elegant self for decades – a feat that Robert Storr dubs ‘the mark of her musedom’ (Robert Storr, Alex Katz Paints Ada, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 2007).

Property from a Distinguished American Collection


Blue Umbrella I

signed and dated 'Alex Katz 1972' on the overlap
oil on canvas
86.7 x 121.9 cm (34 1/8 x 48 in.)
Painted in 1972.

£800,000 - 1,200,000 

Sold for £3,375,000

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Senior Director
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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 2 October 2019