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Alex Katz: the consecration of a pioneer

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Alex Katz rise to fame was not an easy journey. Although considered a pop art pioneer, his work was often misunderstood by critics. But his notoriety never ceased to grow throughout his seven-decade career, as Katz slowly took his place among the most celebrated figurative painters of the late 20th century. Despite his recognition within and beyond the art world, his prices only started skyrocketing in the last few years. Here’s how it happened.

When Alex Katz joined Gavin Brown’s gallery in 2011, his place in the pantheon of contemporary art was certainly not assured. But the art dealer, who firmly believed in the artist and his work, has been working hard to rectify it since then.

Katz's "Blue Umbrella I" was acquired for $4.15 million this October at Phillips London

This strategy seems to have paid as Katz’s market just reached an all-time high during Phillips’ London auction sale this October. The magnificent 1972 painting of his wife called « Blue Umbrella I », which was acquired for $666,000 in 2001, just sold for a whopping $4.15 million.

The market’s recent interest towards Katz can be easily explained. Indeed, the 92-years-old painter, who looks healthier as ever, has quite a long career behind him. After graduating from art school in the early 1950’s, he became a figurative artist and started painting landscapes and still lives, which he himself called « boring » in a recent interview for the New Yorker.

The first portrait Katz did of his wife.

The artist would only find his way in the late 1950’s, where he met his future wife and lifelong muse Ada. She would become his favorite model, thus opening a new era in his life and career. From the early 1960’s, he began working on large-scale portraits which drew inspiration from characters seen on television, movies or ads, and of course his wife.

During these prolific years, Katz forged his own style through colorful portraits and landscape paintings. Indeed, The latter, which often lack details, are often described as “reductive” by the artist himself. Their bright colors and bold simplicity soon earned him the status of precursor in the field of pop art.

From 1964, Katz diversified his subjects matters, as he started representing groups of people, which he never did before. From the mid-1970’s, the painter concentrated on a series landscapes, before returning to his portraits by incorporating new elements in them such references to the world of fashion and modeling.

Katz met with the most famous artists and art dealers of his time, such as Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein or Leo Castelli. But his career slowed down as his work was not part of the abstract and minimalist scene, which prevailed during from the 1960’s and a few decades after.

The painter broke his auction record in 2018 with this $951,000 painting sold at Sotheby's

The artist, who never stopped painting in his New York studio throughout the years, regained momentum in the 1980’s, when the Whitney Museum organized his mid-career retrospective in 1986 – his last to date in New York. in the 1990’s, he was rediscovered by a new generation of painters such as David Salle, who confirmed his prestige within the art world.

However, on the market side, his prices leveled off for years compared with his institutional and public recognition. Things started to change in 2018, which was a busy year for the painter. Indeed, after a few gallery shows at Gavin Brown and Thaddeus Ropac, the Lotte Museum organized a major retrospective of his works in Seoul.

His prices soon followed up, as the painter broke his auction record two times that year. The first one was made with an early self-portrait from 1957, which sold for $855,000 at Sotheby’s New York. The second record was a typical work from 1975, which was acquired for $951,000 at the same auction house.

"Ada and Louise" was Katz's first painting to sell for more than one million dollars

But 2019 was definitely a consecration year for Katz as regard to the art market. Indeed, he passed the one-million mark for the first time of his career last May thanks to a large-scale painting of his wife Ada and a friend in front of the sea, which sold for $1.24 million at Christie’s London. It was followed by another $1.2 million painting acquired at Sotheby’s New york.

His last record, which was once again broken with the $4.15 million mid-size painting of his Ada with an umbrella, is the promise of a bright future for the artist, who is finally getting the recognition he deserved market-wise.

Katz's hommage to Monet at the Musée de l'Orangerie

On the institutional side, 2019 was also a busy year for the artist, as his works were exhibited at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris in front of Monet’s Nymphéas, at The Fondation Louis Vuitton, the Daegu Art museum in South Korea and the Dallas Museum of Art.

Given the length of his career and his institutional prestige, there is a high chance that his prices keep soaring on both the primary and secondary market in the next few months. Indeed, we were told that another masterpiece from the artist will be presented at auction in New York next month, whose price should go even higher than his October record.



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