Held in the same collection for over three decades, Ada with White Dress is a seminal work by the acclaimed figurative painter Alex Katz. Against a lush green ground, Katz has painted his wife Ada, serene in a white dress. Her pose is demure and her face inscrutable; Katz has depicted her barefoot, legs hidden as if she is standing in long grass. Ada with White Dress was painted in 1958, a year after the couple met at the opening of Katz’s two-person exhibition at the Tanager Gallery in the East Village. Katz remembers, ‘Ada had a tan, and a great smile, and she was with this guy who looked like Robert Taylor—fantastic-looking guy. But he didn’t put her coat on—I did’ (A. Katz quoted in C. Tomkins, ‘Alex Katz’s Life in Art’, The New Yorker, 20 August 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/08/27/alex-katzs-life-in-art). They married the following February, the same year that the present work was executed. For decades, Katz kept Ada with White Dress in his personal collection. Since meeting Ada, Katz has painted her more than 200 times, and she remains his greatest muse. The work was included in his 1986 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, as well as in the exhibition Alex Katz Paints Ada, 2006, at The Jewish Museum in New York.
For his striking and candid visual idiom, Katz is often regarded as the quintessential American painter. Born in Brooklyn, he studied fine art at Cooper Union, and although he grew up immersed in an art world that revered Modernism and the Abstract Expressionists, he resisted the dominant stylistic conventions of his time. Veering away from the supposed purity of non-representational imagery, Katz’s paintings of the early 1950s paid homage to Cézanne, Bonnard and Matisse, and the latter’s cut out collages were especially influential for the young artist, shaping the ways in which he positioned his figures as separate to their backdrops. While traces of this inheritance are apparent in the luminous colours and shallow focal field of Ada with White Dress, meeting Ada would prove to be formally transformative for Katz. Contemplating the impact of their relationship on his art, his friend, the critic Stanford Schwartz said, ‘Ada gave him a complex human presence that I don’t think I had seen before in his work’ (S. Schwartz quoted in C. Tomkins, ‘Alex Katz’s Life in Art’, The New Yorker, 20 August 2018).
In the flattened forms of Ada with White Dress are signs of Katz’s burgeoning mature style, which combines flat colour and clean lines filtered through the chromatic sheen of Pop Art. Like the dispassionate approach of Warhol and Lichtenstein, Katz’s paintings are similarly impenetrable; his subjects are always devastatingly cool. In eliminating sentimentality and decoration from his surfaces, his paintings seek the truth and mystery of everyday life. As Frank O’Hara observed, ‘Katz’s people simply existed, somewhere. They stayed in the picture as solutions of a formal problem, neither existential nor lost, neither deprived nor dismayed. They were completely mysterious, pictorially, because there seemed to be no apparent intent of effect. They knew they were there’ (F. O’Hara, ‘Alex Katz’s, 1966, reprinted in Alex Katz: Twenty Five Years of Painting, exh. cat., Saatchi Gallery, London, 1997, p. 159). Ada’s reserve in the present work is not an act, but simply the self-conscious state of being young and in love. While she may have become more comfortable as Katz’s muse over the subsequent six decades, in all her portraits, she remains as sphinx-like as she was at twenty-nine.
Representing a crucial moment in Katz’s career and life, Ada with White Dress wonderfully reveals the artist’s emerging visual identity as one tied up with questions of truth and representation. These portraits are not meant to be beautiful fictions but instead endeavour towards an external purity; paraphrasing Baudelaire to describe Katz’s unvarnished renderings, the critic William Berkson wrote that if they look unbelievable, ‘these things that are false are infinitely closer to the truth’ (W. Berkson, ‘Alex Katz’s Surprise Image’, 1965, reprinted in Alex Katz, exh. cat., Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, 1971, p. 29). In Ada with White Dress, Katz shows the world his young wife as she was—unaffected, elegant, startled, alive.