Arts and Entertainment

Ada, Alex, and Ascension through “Gathering”

A review of Alex Katz: Gathering, and the improvement, changes, and regressions it shows in his style.

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By Jasper Caro

The year is 1957, and Alex Katz has just met his future wife, Ada Del Moro, at a party. She quickly becomes nearly the singular focus of his paintings, and within three months, they get married. When you walk into Alex Katz: Gathering, the first thing you see is Ada’s enlarged face on the first painting on the museum’s display: Blue Umbrella (1972). The exhibit, which opened in October of this year, is housed at the Guggenheim museum. From his student sketches to his recent landscape paintings, the exhibit contains artworks spanning Katz’s entire life and artistic journey. Climbing the Guggenheim’s iconic spiral staircase, Ada is a constant; through her you can see the evolution of Katz’s style, starting at his scrappy sketches at the bottom of the museum to his massive, iconic creations near the top.

Katz was born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. He studied art at The Cooper Union from 1946 to 1949 and spent his summers honing his skills at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. By the 1950s, Katz settled into Manhattan as an artist and began making a name for himself in the local art scene. He started with portraits, painting many of his artist friends, and of course, Ada, setting him apart from others in a time when abstract art was especially popular.

Close to the start of the stairwell, you enter the beginnings of Katz’s career during the ‘50s. One of the first pieces you see, Ada Ada (1959) is a distinct, strong representation of his work from that time. The painting depicts two near-identical women (who are supposed to represent Ada), standing against a white background—a characteristic staple of Katz’s work from this time. Katz replicated even the minor details across the painting, but there still are small differences in the two Adas’ expression and composure that establish that these are two separate drawings on the same canvas. The painting seems almost too simple, with minute details beyond the flat colors and an inexpensive background.

Despite the arguable blandness of his work, it is clear by the time you reach the 1960s this was something Katz was making an effort to remedy. Katz created The Red Smile (1963) during a turning point in his career. He borrowed aspects of commercial billboard advertisements, with many of his future works being on a similarly physically large scale. Like he did in the Blue Umbrella, the subject of the painting is Ada’s zoomed-in face, allowing for more detail in her eyes and hair than in the full body art of Ada Ada. The heavily saturated red background contrasts with the pure white used in Ada Ada, adding a new sense of rejuvenation and vibrancy to Katz’s work. The new style introduced with this piece is considered to be a precursor to the genre of pop art, with its simple yet radical palette and a heavy focus on facial expression.

Continuing to explore the 1960s, the focus of Katz's paintings—while largely Ada—occasionally shifts to other aspects of the artist’s life. Paul Taylor Dance Company (1963-1964) is one of Katz’s works that depict his social circle (Taylor was a dancer, choreographer, and close friend of Katz). The work’s pitch-black background and the blank expressions on the faces of the dancers create an eerie atmosphere for a painting based on a dance scene. Katz creates dimension on the dancers’ unique outfits with lighting, as more desaturated shades of the clothes’ colors are applied in streaks, making the clothes look shiny and elastic. He uses this piece to show off his proficiency at posing and characterizing multiple complete figures—a shift from his typical close-up headshots. With dancers, he is able to display more intricate poses, some almost feeling inhuman. This reinforces the painting’s uncomfortable atmosphere, highlighting Katz’s range considering cheerful works like The Red Smile.

Walking away from the 1960s, you reach the 1970s portion. Black and Brown Blouse (1978) is another portrait of Ada and it continues to replicate many of the techniques from works like The Red Smile: it zooms in on Ada’s face and continues the use of simple shading with slight blurring. However, Ada’s countenance is far less cheerful, and her eyes, which follow the viewer, almost appear sad, emphasized by the white of her pupils; the black-blue background contrasts with The Red Smile’s bright red. This piece stylistically unites aspects of Paul Taylor Dance Company and The Red Smile, using the base concept and subject of the latter with the melancholy tone of the former. This lets the portrait take advantage of both The Red Smile’s effectiveness as an image and the emotions that manifest in Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Continue ascending in the museum and you’ll reach Ada Ada (1991)... again. Yet this painting is much more than a recreation of the 1959 original. Just as in The Red Smile, Ada’s face is the painting’s center, and Katz uses similar techniques with shadow. The painting marks Katz’s return to saturated colors, with a bright cyan background contrasting Ada’s dark black attire. Unlike its 1959 counterpart, the two Adas have distinctly different expressions, with the one on the left having arched eyebrows, with the right Ada’s face being much more relaxed—looking back and forth between the two faces feels more like naturally watching the face change rather than looking at two versions of the same thing.

As you near the top of the staircase, you reach Departure (Ada). Made in 2016, it is one of Katz’s more recent paintings of his wife. However, it is almost completely different from what we’ve seen of Ada in the exhibit. Ada’s face isn’t highlighted: instead, her back is turned, and her full body is shown. Like in Ada Ada (1991), she appears to be in motion: though this time, her whole body is moving, walking away. This painting shows another stylistic shift as Katz welcomes simplicity with minimal details and limited colors.

By the time you hit the exhibit’s last, isolated room, there are only a few monochromatic paintings up on the walls. For example, White Reflection (2020), is just a white canvas with a few marks of texture on it, meant to represent light on water. Ocean 9 (2022) is also a portrayal of light on water, though it uses black, with white marks that look almost like snow being the rushing of river water. These works are a major departure from everything the exhibit seemed to have been building up to. After a career of painting people, Katz’s style becomes abstract, which ultimately feels not only out of place in the exhibit, but also, disappointingly as though he is conforming to the artistic standards that he had broken so many years ago.

The Guggenheim takes full advantage of its circular format to create what is almost a timeline for Alex Katz: Gathering, letting viewers track the advancement and parallels in his products across time periods. The exhibit works best with Katz’s portraits, allowing observers to explore the evolution of his style, but falls flat when it comes to his recent pieces, which seem like a disruption of the exhibit and its themes. When it comes time to leave the exhibit, Ada is the last face you see, her face (and the techniques behind her portrayal) now immediately recognizable.