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Alex Katz is known for his large-scale portraits, which combine the bold, bright visuals of developing Pop Art with a sense of real intimacy. His work's bold colours, two-dimensional compositions, and scarce detail make them a precursor to Pop Art; but, throughout his career, Katz has dabbled in a range of mediums and styles, from Impressionist painting to architectural sculpture. His lack of conformity led to a latent peak in popularity. Katz's pioneering and emotive works remain popular today.


Katz was born in Brooklyn to Russian émigré parents on July 24, 1927. He began drawing with his father from a young age and quickly decided he wanted to study art. From 1946 and 1950, Katz enrolled at the Cooper Union in New York, where he was taught by Morris Kantor, and later studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, where he learned to paint from life and developed his own highly stylised aesthetic. During the mid-1950s, Katz became involved with the second generation of New York school painters, such as Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, and Larry Rivers, and also made friends with poets such as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara.

First Works

During his time in New York in the 1950s, Katz mainly produced collages of muted, simplified landscapes featuring human figures. The views he captured in his work were influenced by both his time in New York and Maine. The landscapes are all rendered in the same flat style, with sections blocked out in single colours, that has become synonymous with his name. It wasn't until the 1980s and 1990s that Katz returned to landscape painting; this time, rather than depicting figures in a particular setting, he wanted his large-scale paintings to ‘envelope’ the viewer in nature.


It is estimated that Katz has participated in nearly 500 group shows and been the subject of more than 200 solo exhibitions internationally over the course of his long career. His very first solo show was held at the Roko Gallery in New York in 1954. Today, his works are held in the collections of over 100 museums and galleries worldwide, including MoMA in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Tate Gallery in London.

Most Famous Works

Katz is best known for his many portraits, particularly because he painted them in the 1950s, when portraiture was considered passé among New York painters. Katz’s prolific output of portraits - including over 250 of his wife and muse, Ada - reveals a fascination with human nature and expression that is reminiscent of both the Old Masters and modern artists, such as Andy Warhol and Julian Opie. His most famous portrait of Ada is undoubtedly The Red Smile (1963), which is nearly ten feet wide, making it one of his largest portraits ever. In this monumental work, Ada’s profile dominates the composition, outlined against a bold red background.


The most prominent influences on Katz’s work are evident from observing his style. Elements of the work of Henri Matisse and the School of Paris, Pop Art, and even occasionally Abstract Expressionism (in his early works), can be seen.

In the early 1960s, Katz began to paint large-scale canvases, which often feature close-ups of his subject’s face, as in Upside Down Ada (1965), or Oona (2006). These are said to be influenced by images used in advertising and the dramatic crops of cinema, as modern media typically has a large part to play in Katz’s work, leading to comparisons to many contemporary Pop Artists. Katz’s rejection of Abstract Expressionism mirrors that of Andy Warhol, who similarly painted portraits on monochromatic coloured backgrounds.

The influence of Whistler and the Impressionists became apparent in Katz’s later works, in the late 1980s. He moved away from the bold colours of his earlier work and began to take on a looser, more painterly style. Into the 21st century, his subjects continued to evolve, and he painted a large number of flowers in the form of stylised still lifes, such as Late Summer Flowers (2013) that harked back to his first experiments with the Impressionist genre in the early 1960s.

Style & Technique

Over the years, Katz asked many family members, waitresses, and strangers he met on the street to pose for him. His bold, two-dimensional portraits tend to focus on colour and form rather than precise details, and his subjects can appear simplified and sometimes isolated against their bright backgrounds. Katz often paints on aluminium, to give the figures a strong presence and an ‘illuminated’ feel.

After 1964, Katz showed a growing interest in creating art that included larger groups of people, particularly figures from the world of art and literature. His sculpture One Flight Up (1968) is composed of more than 30 cut-out portraits of Manhattan’s popular party scene. In 1977, he created a frieze composed of the heads of 23 women, which was painted onto a 247-foot-long billboard and displayed above Times Square. In contrast to the posed, named subjects of his portraits, Katz painted many of his ‘environmental’ landscapes using nothing more than an idea of a place, rather than a specific reference.

Life & Times

Alex Katz has admitted to destroying thousands of paintings during his first ten years of pursuing an artistic career. He sought to find his own unique identity, rather than conform to the expectations and styles of others. He rejected narrative and tried to paint faster than he could think.

Throughout his career, Alex Katz made friends and acquaintances with many prominent figures. He produced sets and costumes for choreographer Paul Taylor in the 1960s and used many dancers and models as subjects for his portrait work. He collaborated with the likes of Ted Berrigan, Ann Lauterbach, art critic Carter Ratcliff, and Gerard Malanga on several editions of Face of the Poet, and provided the etching illustrations for Gloria by Bill Berkson. In 1962, Harper’s Bazaar included wooden cut-outs by Katz in a four-page summer fashion article. As a result of this, and many more collaborations (including with his son Vincent), Katz made a name for himself in the world of the arts, advertising, fashion, literature, and popular media. Many writers have since conducted interviews with him, and in 1989, a special edition of Parkett was dedicated to him.

On The Market

As well as achieving critical acclaim throughout his career, Alex Katz has also enjoyed considerable commercial success; however, his prices have remained affordable compared to contemporaries such as David Hockney. It was only in 2019 that the artist passed the million dollar mark (when Blue Umbrella I (1972) sold at auction for £3.375 million) to become a blue chip name, a delay that the artist ascribes to his work never ‘fitting in’: “I’m not a Pop artist, and people can’t see my work is realistic, either.” With recent auctions seeing records for Katz being surpassed, demand for his work is finally set to grow. The 400 print editions that Katz has released throughout his career, which include lithography, etching, silkscreen, woodcut, and lino, continue to be an affordable option for collectors looking to acquire an example of Katz’s work.

Blue Umbrella 1 by Alex Katz

Image © Phillips / Blue Umbrella I © Alex Katz 1972

1. £3.4M for Alex Katz's Blue Umbrella 1

The first of a set of 2 paintings of the same title, Blue Umbrella is one of Katz’s most important works. It depicts his wife Ada, a subject whom he has depicted over 200 times since their marriage, sheltered by the angled umbrella itself, which frames her despondent gaze. The rain, palette and close composition of the work adds to its sense of intimacy, and one cannot help but question Ada’s elusivity and what could she possibly be thinking?

The most expensive Katz painting to date, this work sold for almost £3,373,000 at Phillips London on the 2nd October 2019. Timeless and mysterious, it captures the essence of Katz’s bold painterly aesthetic and ambiguous yet familiar portrait style.

The Red Band by Alex Katz

Image © Sotheby's / The Red Band © Alex Katz 1978

2. £2.4M for Alex Katz's The Red Band

Once again a portrait of Katz’s wife Ada, The Red Band encapsulates the almost impossible combination of ambiguity and familiarity that has come to define the artist’s work. Bold colours and limited compositional line work show us two profiles of the sitter, not quite reflections, but clearly the same woman, who remains characterised by her distanced, enigmatic expression despite the closely cropped composition here.

Recently sold for £2,439,355 at Sotheby’s New York on October 28th 2020, The Red Band is particularly emblematic of Katz’s unique mode of realism. The ostensible simplicity of his painting draws us in, only to leave us questioning the motives of both painter and sitter. As Donald Kuspit so aptly summarises: “ For all their everydayness, Katz’s figures have a sense of ambient strangeness to them, suggesting the mystery of their inner existence, perhaps even to themselves.”

January 2 by Alex Katz

Image © Sotheby's / January 2 © Alex Katz 1972

3. £1.3M for Alex Katz's January 2

This large scale oil on linen work depicts the face of Katz’s favourite muse - his wife Ada- set against a sharp, graphic portrayal of wintry trees in Central Park. The strange composition of the work makes the figure seem as if she has been inserted in a film reel, or as if the canvas itself has been spliced together - Katz’s sharp, bold line composition taken to the extreme.

Sold for £1,317,162 at Sotheby's New York on 15th November 2019, this painting retains the air of ambiguity so central to Katz’s style, yet also nods to quintessential American iconography, namely the greys of Central Park and New York.

Orange Hat 2 by Alex Katz

Image © Christie's / Orange Hat 2 © Alex Katz 1973