Alex Katz - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Tuesday, October 20, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Overview

    'I think the big change came in 1957 when I started to paint Ada over and over again. […] I figured... well, if I get Ada right, if you only get one person right, it's universal.' —Alex Katz

    There is a certain matter-of-factness that permeates Alex Katz’s paintings of his wife Ada. Ada is not presented in an idealised manner or rendered with elevated detail; rather, she conveys overarching attributes: wry coolness and ineffable allure. In Ada with Mirror, Katz’s elusive muse stares intently at her own reflection in a small round mirror, her long lashes motioning towards the viewer as her languid gaze wanders off into the titular object’s reflective surface. Painted more than two hundred times since their marriage in 1958, Ada is known to Katz’s audience as both a recognisable and abstract protagonist, inherently mysterious yet paradoxically identifiable by virtue of her mystery. Aligning with this visual and conceptual paradox, Ada with Mirror offers a closeup shot of the artist’s most prolific model which, despite enabling physical proximity, retains a psychological distance – an impenetrability that echoes Robert Storr’s belief that Ada’s traits are ‘as difficult to grasp on their own as the person they incompletely constitute’.i Painted in 1969, Ada with Mirror is an exquisite example of Katz’s preferred muse, and a prestigious formulation of the single figure format that he subsequently continued working on for decades. Notably, the painting precedes by only two years Katz’s first significant institutional show in the United States, that travelled from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts to The Art Gallery, University of California, the Minnesota Museum of Art, and the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, from January to December 1971.


    Ada, Ada, Ada


    Though Ada has now been portrayed by her admiring and observant husband for over five decades, she belongs to no time, no place, no evolutionary realm. Rather, it is as though each Ada portrait captures the essence of her being, most compellingly materialised as a fleeting yet perennial presence in the artist’s mind. ‘Still in progress, the [Ada] series stretches over a period of nearly fifty years’, remarked Robert Storr, ‘from the waning heyday of New York School gestural abstraction through the advent and attenuation of Pop, Minimalism, and Neo-Expressionism [...]. In short, during that half century everything about art and much about American society has changed. Remarkably very little about Ada has. That is the mark of her musedom’. Though in later years, Ada’s hair in her portraits began graying with idiosyncratic elegance, she is ‘preternaturally abiding’, Storr continues.ii Ada with Mirror eludes this minor twist in her appearance; instead, the composition offers the quintessential Ada portrait – one where her classical beauty is rendered with polished contours and gleaming glossiness. A few characteristics are undoubtedly distinguishable as her own: the strong dark eyes, eyebrows, and hair contouring an otherwise snowy complexion, the blush lips adding colour to the limited palette constituting her bare face. In the present work, Ada is at once muse and model. The solemnity of her timeless beauty matches art historical precedents, while the sleekness of her traits aligns with standardised beauty advertisements, most typically devised on comparably horizontal planes.


    Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #56, 1980, gelatin silver print, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.
    Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #56, 1980, gelatin silver print, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

    Yet, while Ada’s likenesses most evidently summon references in the realm of art history, they also trace antecedents within the cinematic world of the 1950s and 1960s, when female protagonists were commanded to perform chicness, enigma, seriousness and internal wisdom as a testament to their required femininity and glamour. Captured from a loving lens, Ada with Mirror most closely echoes Cindy Sherman’s derisive self-portraits, which are at once anchored in the art historical tradition of canonical portraiture, and tied to the idiosyncratic mises-en-scènes of seminal Hollywood creations. Specifically, Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #56 sees the artist looking at her own reflection in a mirrored surface – her longing gaze suggesting an existential sentiment that is comparable to Ada’s. The present painting’s cinematic element can furthermore be attributed to Katz’s increasing interest in film, television and billboard advertising in the 1960s – a time during which the artist began experimenting with a larger scale, and featuring dramatically cropped faces. 

    '''I always liked faces,'' the New York-based artist Alex Katz says. But perhaps none as much as his wife’s, Ada’s, which he has been painting throughout his career that spans almost half a century.' —Gay Gassman

    Ada’s particularity furthermore resides in her liminal associations – the in-betweenness inferred by her cosmic figure, the anonymity induced by her flattened features. ‘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.iii Both warm and distant, vulnerable and charismatic, Ada channels a form of painterly introversion that commands the viewer’s gaze. Her ambivalent musedom recalls that of Salvador Dalí’s wife Gala, most exquisitely embodied in the artist’s seminal 1952 Galatea of the Spheres, where Gala’s figure is pieced together through a series of free-floating, or falling, atomic particles. Both available to the viewer and not, revealing physical attributes whilst concealing others, Gala presages Katz’s Ada, whose appearance, despite eschewing literal deconstruction, similarly appears simultaneously legible and outside of the audience’s reach.

  • Women’s Reflections in Art History

  • The Mirror


    Of further incredible significance within Ada with Mirror is the work’s second titular component. Loaded with literary and art historical precedent, the mirror alludes to the politics surrounding representation, whilst at the same time existing as a tool for the model or muse to become self-aware. In the present work, Ada negates the physical, painterly screen that separates her from her audience, yet erects a symbolic alternative between herself and the outside world, embodied by the agent of the mirror. Curiously reminiscent of the Old Masters’ theatrical compositions which would incorporate the mirror as a tool to enhance the dramatic possibilities of a picture, the present work also posits as a stunning display of the kaleidoscopic dialogues with art history that characterise the symbolic object; from later artistic formulations, cues are taken from Pablo Picasso, René Magritte, André Breton and Michelangelo Pistoletto, who would employ the mirror to achieve illusion. Conveying surrealist metaphors, a discursive vernacular, and magical realism alike, the mirror enables a wealth of visual and conceptual tools that complicate the easy reading of a portrait. Paired with the female muse, the item allows the painted protagonist to appear self-sufficient: she is seen but also sees herself, she has become both subject matter and curator of the composition.


    i Robert Storr, ‘Ada, Ada, Ada…’, Alex Katz Paints Ada, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 2006, p. 1.
    ii Robert Storr, ‘Ada, Ada, Ada…’, Alex Katz Paints Ada, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 2006, p. 6.
    iii Leslie Camhi, ‘Painted Lady’, The New York Times, 27 August 2006, online.

    • Provenance

      Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist)
      Private Collection, New York
      Casterline Goodman Gallery, Aspen
      Acquired from the above by present owner

Property from an Important Asian Collection


Ada with Mirror

signed and dated 'Alex Katz 69' lower right
oil on linen, in artist's frame
83 x 123.5 cm (32 5/8 x 48 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1969.

Full Cataloguing

£400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for £529,200

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 20 October 2020