Important Australian + International Fine Art
21 April 2021


born 1927, American

oil on composition board

27.5 x 30.0 cm

signed verso: Alex Katz

$45,000 – 65,000
Sold for $165,682 (inc. BP) in Auction 64 - 21 April 2021, Melbourne

Robert Miller Gallery, New York (label attached verso)
Ray Hughes, Sydney, acquired from the above mid 1980s
The Estate of Ray Hughes, Sydney

Catalogue text

Diminutive and softly spoken, Ada Del Moro lives a double life in the works of her husband, the American painter Alex Katz. A contemporary muse, she has appeared in countless paintings from the 1950s until the 2010s, ageing slowly and gracefully, preserved in oil within each fashionable vignette. We see Ada in a Jackie Kennedy-esque pillbox hat, in a little black dress, with a bathing cap or fedora and sunglasses. Ada with Head Band and Lips is young. A quintessentially bohemian hippie, here she is on family holiday in Maine, with a paisley bandana tied horizontally around her head. Through the window behind her, is a lakeside landscape in bright, unnatural hues, closely related to Katz’s most famous landscape painting, Swamp Maple, 4.30, 1968, now held in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. While most families of the 20th century have photo albums of milestones and holidays, the Katzes have a body of work, ‘we didn’t take pictures of each other, he painted’, Ada explained in 2006. 1

Ada with Head Band and Lips was painted directly from nature on a small piece of Masonite, and is full of delicate, painterly passages. Grounded in direct observation and faithful recording of colour and light, this intimate oil study bears the purest traces of Katz’s technical proficiency with oil paint and his translation of perceptual phenomena into art. Flattened by a uniform, diffuse light, and the optical effects of adjacent flat colour fields, Katz’s paintings appear effortless. Katz’s distillation of colour and form is the result of a rigorous process of editing, a push and pull between exact detail and stylistic omissions. All that Katz wants to convey is held on the surface of the painting, remaining frustratingly illusive to those who search for meaning beyond his slickly painted and smoothed exteriors. Katz’s subjects are all neatly self-contained within their tight frames, and the artist imposes the same rules on Ada, his Galatea.

Staring directly out from the painting, Ada remains forthright and inscrutable, her elusiveness defying any psychological reading of the painting and of her persona. The blank expression she bears emphasises Katz’s formal detachment (his flatness and coolness) and further elevates her to a position of transcendent, almost divine stillness. For the painter, she is the archetype of an American beauty, ‘And she’s a classic American beauty—full lips, a short nose, and wide eyes.’ 2

In Ada with Head Band and Lips, it is precisely these physical traits that Katz has chosen to emphasise. He has carefully outlined the delicate changes of colour of Ada’s lips in the panel below the painting, recording these physical details with tender attention. On the hard surface of a pressed wood board, Katz’s brushstrokes are quick and visible, in some areas approximative. Painted fast and wet, Katz is willing to lay colour on top of colour and let his painting remain a little loose in these immediate records of direct perception. The contours are occasionally distorted and quirky, what the artist qualified as a ‘klutzy brush’, narrowly avoiding muddiness by eliminating superfluous detail. The most interesting of these graphic distillations is Katz’s omission of the whites of the eyes’ sclerae, instead painting the same colour as the sitter’s skin and rendering them uncannily more penetrating. As Simon Schama noted, ‘Katz’s works all begin with sensory impression and studious observation, but then are worked into something frankly and magically unnatural: a realm existing within the artist’s inner eye’. 3

1. Camhi, L., ‘Painted Lady’, New York Times, 27 August 2006
2. Tomkins, C., ‘Alex Katz’s Life in Art’, The New Yorker, 20 August 2018, p. 27
3. Simon Schama in 1996, cited in Sandler, I., Alex Katz: A Retrospective, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1998, p. 90