ALEX KATZ (B. 1927)
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ALEX KATZ (B. 1927)

Man with Brown Hat

ALEX KATZ (B. 1927)
Man with Brown Hat
signed and dated 'alex katz 2⁄79' (on the overlap)
oil on canvas
96 x 72 in. (243.8 x 182.9 cm.)
Painted in 1979.
Javier López Gallery, Madrid
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2006
A. Dunne, "I prefer Stan Getz to Sartre", Irish Times, 3 March 2007.
Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Alex Katz Portraits, June-September 2003, p. 59 (illustrated).
Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Alex Katz: New York, February-May 2007, pp. 27 and 83 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

“The portrait form is where the challenge is. It’s much easier to make a ‘modern’ picture outside of the form.”
--Alex Katz

Alex Katz's Man with Brown Hat is a stylish work, emblematic of his billboard sensibility as the figure dominates the picture frame against a clean, brown background. The artist’s highly stylized portraits represent his source of notoriety in his earlier career and the pivotal shift to Katz's highly followed and notable oeuvre in the 1980s. His stylized portraits and large-scale landscapes developed in the early 1960s and continue to hold a power of influence in today's art market. As a result, the present work is infused with a nostalgic sensation that is familiar, yet inviting viewers to discover new, wholly unfamiliar themes. The theatrical crop in Man with Brown Hat, archetypal of Alex Katz's finest creations, is cinematic in nature, featuring an impenetrable character that displays an uncomplicated expression. Rendered in the artist's flattened style, Man with Brown Hat offers a critical moment in the artist's illustrious career, bridging the iconic portraits that populate his early works with the impressive cinematographic renderings. Donald Kuspit notes Katz's distinctive style: "Katz's portraits are true to the way we experience others. They eloquently convey the tension between the determinate outer appearance and the indeterminate inner reality of someone known only from the outside. Katz seems to make the shell of a person's outer reality his or her complete substance, as though the person had no inner substance. Yet the quirkiness of Katz's appearances alludes to that inner substance…For all their everydayness, Katz's figures have an air of transient strangeness to them, suggesting the mystery of their inner existence, perhaps even to themselves" (Donald Kuspit, Alex Katz Night Paintings, New York 1991, p. 8).
The artist illustrates an ominous, enigmatic scene within the present lot that unfolds in various hues of brown and gray, alluding to a site of mystery in relative proximity. The character displayed is an homage to the actor Alan Ladd, expressing the nonreactive, bleak emotions frequently portrayed in the 1942 Film Noir, This Gun for Hire. There Alan Ladd's character is out for vengeance. The story is best told with the display of Man with Brown Hat's cold porcelain skin and hollow gray eyes that beckon with piercing forceful accents. Noted for their sharp edges, smooth surfaces and flat shapes, these colors assert a degree of autonomy and corporeality. Katz has made colors that are not only able to describe, but also to speak and to tell. For Katz, Man with Brown Hat is familiar yet aloof and is both a depiction inspired by reality and a fictious imagining. Invariably painting with an atmosphere of admiration, Katz picks up the subtleties of Ladd's stark expressions and mirrors them with a choice of hat that's shadow cast, continuing the storyline of mystery. The monotonous tones of beiges and browns contrast with the vibrant reds of his tie and the blues of his collared shirt, drawing the viewer into the piece's focal point.
Monumental and invitingly impersonal, Katz's realism echoes his training in commercial art. In the late 1950s, Katz started painting in New York City, generating a distinct style in the course of the Abstract Expressionists boom. Katz stood apart from his contemporaries, not fitting neatly into any of the prescribed boxes. Well versed in art history ranging from Egyptian figuration and Japanese woodcuts to Old Masters and French painters, Katz has inventively combined these different approaches while retaining his commitment to creating original and stylish portraiture (Tom E. Hinson, “Alex Katz’s Impala, ” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 73, no.8, October 1986, pp.315-316). Man with Brown Hat possesses both the solemnity of a formal portrait and the subtle, enamoring quality of a film poster.
The present work is an ideal illustration of Katz's distinct pictorial representation of realism, championing the genre of the portrait and delving into the tradition of the art historical canon of painting with the same mastery of stark lines. Man with Brown Hat composes parts of an essential series of portrait images created in the late seventies and early eighties, which draw inspiration from the realms of film, and advertising. Katz defines the series’ inception, noting, "It started in the movies. I was at Film Forum, and they were showing a Russian movie. People walking down an alley with trees around them. I thought it would be a great image for a winter painting. So I went down to city hall and painted it outdoors. It was a cold winter day, and the air was kind of a little heavy, so the sun was trying to come through. I painted that en plein air. I liked the image a lot, so I asked Ada to come down and I did a sketch. I started with a relatively small landscape, and then I think I did the large one because it seemed like something that would go large successfully. I just thought I'd try the split. It just seemed like it would be an interesting idea" (Alex Katz cited in Julia Felsenthal, "Alex Katz on His Painting January 3," Vogue, June 2015). Man with Brown Hat illustrates a significant moment of the drastic development of Katz's signature reductive painting style to new grounds, finally emerging into a dynamic work emblematic of a new chapter in his oeuvre.

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