Alex Katz - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “For Katz the image, and his TV, billboard or movie close-up discovery, provided a way of both isolating and abstracting each separate feature, as if it were an arc, a rhomboid, an ellipse, within the psychological unity which the audience imparts to a recognisable form.”
    —Frank O’Hara



    Recalling the scale, format and graphic immediacy of towering billboards featuring the smiling faces of beautiful young women advertising everything from consumer products to Hollywood movies, Ariel is a bright and bold example of Alex Katz’s radical take on realism which has, over the course of the last eight decades, redefined the vocabulary of contemporary portraiture. Like Katz’s portraits of his wife and primary muse Ada, the subject here is at once highly individuated and universal, a technique which has enabled the artist to anchor the idealised elegance and mysterious impassivity of his unique visual style, granting an emotional depth to his fascination with surface and the fleeting moment.


    Movement and Muybridge


    Set against a sizzling ground of saturated tangerine tones, the titular Ariel appears in white bathing suit and sunhat, Katz deftly capturing the languorous summer heat and laid-back glamour of the East Coast and its photogenic inhabitants. Carefree, she passes in front of us, catching our eye as she goes. Borrowing at once from the visual language of film and the statuesque, static quality of horizontal frieze reliefs, the painting is a study in motion, the subject shown in three, sequential poses as if caught in a series of snapshots as she moves through the frame, swinging her sunhat out in front of her.


    Paradoxically magnifying the sense of kinetic energy and movement by localising it in a series of static, sequential images, Ariel visually recalls the radical photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, whose 1887 Animal Locomotion introduced entirely new ways of thinking about photography, movement, and the concept of time. Amassing over 100,000 images of animals and humans moving and engaged in a variety of tasks, these pioneering studies of motion presented huge innovations in the fields of both photography and science, paving the way for cinema and more complex conceptualisations of our experience of time and perception.


    Eadweard Muybridge, Woman Opening a Parasol, 1883-86, printed 1887, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, 1938, 38.82.1


    Now in his 96th year, ideas around movement and, more specifically, dance have preoccupied Katz throughout his long career. During the 1960s, the artist started working with the choreographer Paul Taylor, a rich and rewarding collaboration which evolved over 20 years and saw Katz produce innovative sets and costumes which experimented with scale, framing mechanisms, and the same flat lighting that would come to define his painting. At the same time, Katz developed a body of work based on the dancers he was working with, their own focus on the primacy of movement and gesture encouraging the artist to work towards capturing that same immediacy in painting.

    “I had seen Paul dance for the first time shortly before we met with Edwin [Denby] and thought his choreography was one of the most surprising things I had seen as an artist. Paul’s dancing seemed to be a real break with that of the previous generation: no expression, no content, no form, as he said, and with great technique and intelligence.”
    —Alex Katz

    A student at New York’s Cooper Union during the 1940s, Katz was immersed in the culture of American Modernism, befriending a community of dancers, theatre types, and poets of the so-called New York School, and yet the artist found himself out of step with the gestural dynamism of a then-ascendent Abstract Expressionism. Similarly, while his fluid sense of line, crisp, flattened forms, and smooth, unblemished surfaces anticipated Pop Art’s heightened graphic sensibility in many ways, their fascination with commodity culture and consumerism was not shared by Katz, whose painterly themes chimed more closely with those of an earlier generation of artists.  


    While undoubtably a painter of urbane, contemporary life, his preference for intimate subjects of the everyday – including family, friends, and the various leisure pursuits they enjoy – aligns him thematically if not stylistically to Impressionism’s focus on the fleeting moment. Fascinated by the body in motion, Edgar Degas’ almost obsessive rendering of ballerinas offers an especially resonant reference here, Katz’s own combinations of bodily gesture and the radical, close-cropping techniques learned from film and advertising recalling the French Impressionist’s own interest in emergent photographic technologies and his tendency to employ unexpected perspectives, setting his figures at a sharp angle to the picture plane.

    Edgar Degas, Blue Dancers, c. 1899, Pushkin Museum, Moscow. Image: Bridgeman Images


    Executed in 2016, the year after The Metropolitan Museum in New York mounted an exhibition dedicated to works by the artist in their collection, Ariel sits in close relation to Katz’s slightly later Coca-Cola Girls series, adopting the same graphic sensibility, sequence of balletic gestures, and richly nostalgic atmosphere as we see in the present work. Highly characteristic of Katz’s iconic visual style in its use of bold blocks of colour and clean contours, Ariel also captures something more essential about the mechanics of looking, the desire activated in spectatorship, and the nature of portraiture itself. Slowing down this fleeting moment and separating it into its constituent parts, Katz dissects the sudden flash of self-awareness as Ariel becomes aware of herself being looked at, giving weight to critic Donal Kuspit’s claim that ‘Katz’s portraits are true to the way we experience others […] convey[ing] the tension between the determinate outer appearance and the indeterminate inner reality of someone known only from the outside.’i


    Colby College, drawing connections between Katz’s painting and choreography in Alex Katz Theatre and Dance | ‘Finding inspiration from Alex Katz’s Pas de Deux Paintings’


    Collector’s Digest


    • Most recently honoured with a major career retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Alex Katz has been painting for over 80 years, during which time he has been the focus of over 200 solo exhibitions all over the world.

    • His work is found in the most prestigious public collections The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Musée de l'Art moderne, Centre Pompidou in Paris, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, and the Tate Gallery, London.



    i Donald Kuspit, Alex Katz Night Paintings, New York, 1991, p. 8.

    • Provenance

      Studio Alex Katz, New York
      Lococo Foundation, Saint Louis
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Tampa Museum of Art; Hamburg, Barlach Halle K, Alex Katz: Black and White, 23 February 2017 - 20 February 2018

Property from a Private German Collection



signed and dated ‘Alex Katz 16 Alex Katz 16’ on the overlap
oil on linen
165 x 351 cm (64 7/8 x 138 1/4 in.)
Painted in 2016.

Full Cataloguing

£650,000 - 850,000 

Sold for £698,500

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023