"Style and appearance are the things I'm more concerned about than what something means. I'd like to have style take the place of content, or the style be the content... I prefer it to be emptied of meaning, emptied of content." – Alex Katz
Alex Katz began his career by declaring that he wanted to “knock off the walls” work by the likes of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, two artists who had dominated the 1950s with their fiery brand of Abstract Expressionism (A. Katz, quoted in “Interview 007, Robert Storr in Conversation with Alex Katz,” in M. Robecchi (ed.), London, 2014, p. 14). Katz’s large-scale figurative paintings are a direct response to expressive brushwork of his predecessors and their New York School of painting that produced works on a dramatic scale. Katz rose to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s as he sought to raise figuration to the scale of these abstract works. He eventually ended up exhibiting his works next to those of Kline and Clifford Still, and–in his own opinion–said “it held up” (Ibid.).
Ulla shines as a striking example of Katz’s skills as a portraitist. Featuring the model and actress Ulla van Zellar as his subject, the present work is at the same time serious, simple, elegant and ambitious. The large scale of this canvas delivers a powerful impact and a presence that commands any space. Portraiture has been a subject that has dominated the artist’s oeuvre since his earliest days and is one he continues to mine for new and unexplored aspects. The present example is one of the most established portraits he realized, executed in his unique technical vocabulary perfected over the course of his career. Katz has remained faithful to his artistic style and unlike, other painters, has been focused on perfecting his paintings of New York, its social landscape and the friends and family who have formed the central part of career. Predominantly concerned with painterly style, Katz attests that the subject matter is secondary where style is concerned, “I like the style to be the content. The style is cut in with the painting. Painting without style is just craft” (Ibid. p. 15).