Alex Katz’s artwork has seen a steady increase in value over the past decade, with the average value of Alex Katz's artwork experiencing a 10% growth over the last 5 years and the typical price paid now reaching £8,700. This increase highlights the allure of his highly contemporary portraiture paintings and prints.
Indeed, the highest price ever paid for a Alex Katz painting was achieved in 2020, when Blue Umbrella 1, crossed the US$3million threshold at auction with Phillips London.
A growing interest in his practice, alongside a planned Guggenheim retrospective in 2022, has only spurred his popularity and boosted the secondary market for Alex Katz prints. This article explores the most expensive Alex Katz pieces sold at auction to date.
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 add 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 a hammer price of £2,800,000 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.
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.”
Alex Katz's alluring muse and wife Ada Katz makes another appearance of many in his 1979 painting East Interior. Ada stands against the window of the artistic couple's Maine home, a soft, golden glow gently setting her face alight. Katz gives a glimpse of what lies beyond the window, a moon of golden bronze rises high against the night sky. "She's a classic American beauty," Katz describes of his wife. "She's also a European beauty."
Katz executed East Interior alongside its sister West Interior, but East Interior certainly outperforms the latter. Fetching £2million at the Contemporary Evening Auction on 19 May 2022 in Sotheby's, New York, East Interior exceeded their presale estimates of £1.2-1.6million.
At six feet tall, Katz's 1976 Rackstraw And Pamela depict Katz's friend and fellow painter Rackstraw Downes and his then-wife, Pamela Berkley. The stunning vista of the Maine coast serves as Katz's chosen backdrop once more, saturated in brown and blue hues. The artist masterfully elicits a form of closeness and intimacy between the two subjects as Rackstraw engages in an affable conversation with his wife.
Achieving £2 million at a Contemporary Evening Auction on 19 May 2022 in Sotheby's, New York, the sale of Rackstraw And Pamela exceeded its lowest estimate of £1,600,010.
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.
Considered one of Katz’s seminal works, Orange Hat 2 is one of a pair of portraits depicting his wife wearing a large, orange sunhat. Sold for £1,222,632 at Christie's New York on 14th November 2019, this ephemeral work draws us in immediately
The flatness of Ada’s features are drawn out by the sharp, bright perspectival rendition of her yellow Maine home behind her. Katz’s use of a typically bright palette and limited, bold linework embodies his style and once again highlights his perennial fascination with depicting his wife.
Dark Glasses is a striking profile portrait of a female sitter - practically oozing chicness with her large dark framed sunglasses and the notion of rapid movement in the brushstrokes behind her. It is suggestive of someone sitting, nonchalant, in a fast-moving car.
Sold for £958,163 at Sotheby’s New York on May 17th 2019, this painting captures a sense of detached decadence so characteristic of Katz's depictions of 1980s America. The large scale here is also important insofar as the artist sought to create vast figurative canvases that could rival the large-scale works of the Abstract Expressionists.
Saturated blue and deep green dominate this image of Katz’s wife Ada and her mother Louise. Set against the backdrop of the springtime Maine sky, this painting once again evokes a sense of intimacy while keeping the viewer at a distance from the figures in the work - indeed we are separated by the bench itself.
The balance between focus on people and landscape here indicates the beginning of Katz’s shift towards landscape painting, yet the bold palette and simplistic mode of depiction here captures his unique blend of Pop and the figurative. The work sold for £947,250 on the 7th March 2019 at Christie’s London.
A laudable painting that elucidates Katz's distinct artistic flair, his 2003 White Visor depicts a blonde woman with her eyes shielded from the glaring sunlight. Against a backdrop of light blue, she gazes into the distance at something we cannot see. Is she merely admiring the view, or could she be deep in introspection, a faraway look in her eyes? Katz keeps the viewer in suspense, an enigma in every sense of the word.
White Visor sold for £856,800 during the Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction in Sotheby's, London on 2 March 2022, against an estimate of £650,000-850,000.
Typical of Katz’s style, all extraneous details in this portrait of a reclining woman clad in a pink blouse have been stripped away. We are left with the bare minimum in terms of detail, and with a bold, panoramic snapshot of the sitter Maxine.
Our eye is drawn to the contrast between the geometric linework of the cityscape backdrop and the more smooth, reclining rendition of the seated woman. Sold for £836,435 at Christie’s New York on 14th November 2019, Maxine embodies, Katz’s ability to force a viewer into close proximity with his subjects, while still keeping those subjects aloof and disengaged with us.
One of Katz’s later portraits, Tara maintains his signature directness and solid composition. Muted colours and simplistic line work carve out a female sitter whose gaze looks just beyond us as viewers. The artist has simultaneously created a sense of closeness and distance that we cannot help but be drawn to.
It recently sold for £768,580 while on display at the Ketterer Kunst Gmbh in Munich on 10th December 2021, and formed part of Katz’s portfolio Six Portraits.
A prime example of the complexity of Katz’s work, this seemingly simple depiction of his wife’s home in Maine immediately captures one’s eye. Why did the artist choose such a strange angle in which to capture this building? Why has he chosen to crop the image on such a large scale work?
Ultimately, Yellow House is testament to one of Katz’s most beloved subjects and to the artist’s stylistic shift away from portraiture in the 1980s. Sold on 19th November 2021 at Sotheby’s New York for £734,276, this painting is particularly charming. It is intimate in a less obvious sense than his portraits of his wife, in that it is a clearly sentimental subject but Katz has not glamorised or embellished this work. It is a glimpse into his own fond memories without any kind of extravagance.
Katz himself claimed that “I wanted to use contemporary gestures, contemporary clothes and contemporary people” in his work, and The Light 1 is a striking example of this aim being put into action. A large-scale depiction of a man clad in a very 70s suit, reaching to light a woman’s cigarette, this painting manages to embody the spirit of contemporary life while retaining Katz’s signature elusivity. Who are these figures? What is their relationship?
Sold for £703,130 at Sotheby’s New York on 17th May 2018, The Light 1 is also one of Katz’s more claustrophobic compositions - a sense heightened by the depthless grey backdrop to the scene. A limited palette and air of ambiguity once again establish a Pop aesthetic that is at once undercut by the elusivity and depth of his subjects.