Monday’s Muse: Ada Katz

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Alex Katz was born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents had fled the Soviet Revolution in Russia, and arrived in America with almost nothing. Katz attended Copper Union from 1946 to 1949, and finished his studies at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. Much like Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, Katz was deeply influenced by the landscapes of the North Eastern United States. It was in Skowehegan that Katz found a reason to “a reason to devote [his] life to painting”, and the forest and fields of Maine remains a focus of Katz’ landscape works. Today, Katz still cycles with the seasons between his loft in SoHo and a small farmhouse he keeps in Lincolnville.

Maine Beach, 2001
Maine Beach, 2001. Image Credit: Leonard Epstein Photography

 

Ada Katz was born in 1928 to Italian immigrants in the Bronx. She grew up in similarly modest circumstances, although from a young age she developed the keen sense of style, which her future husband would later preserve for posterity. Her mother was a seamstress and sewed Ada all of her clothing. Despite her humble upbringing Ada succeeded in a way, which would be notable today, but for the time, was frankly remarkable. She studied at Brooklyn College and then later enrolled at NYU to study biology. She excelled in her work, and won a Fulbright Scholarship to travel to Milan to study tumor genetics. When she completed her studies in Italy, she returned to the US and began working at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York. It was during this time that the young Ada, who Alex would claim had already established a legendary reputation in the art world, went to see a group show at the now defunct Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street. It was there that she met Alex, and the two began dating.

Black Dress, 1960
Black Dress, 1960. Image Credit: Tate

 

In previous iterations of this column it has often been the artist that has chosen the muse: Manet caught sight of Meurent; Schiele might have been sent Neuzil; and Brancusi studied Pogany. Yet, in the words of Alex it was Ada who chose him:

“It’s strange, the whole thing, Ada was on a Madame Curie track, working 60 hours a week. She didn’t have that much intention of getting married. And I believe there were probably three guys in New York she could relate to. So I just got lucky. I fit what she wanted, or what would have been acceptable.”

Blue Umbrella, 1972
Blue Umbrella, 1972. Image Credit: PBS

 

Once their relationship began the two became inseparable. They went to exhibitions together, they visited The Club, and Alex even took her to the Cedar Street Tavern. As their lives became more and more entwined she became a greater and greater focus of his work. In his early work Alex painted portraits of everyone from Robert Rauschenberg to Harold Rosenberg; but as the years went by he focused on Ada.

Brisk Day I-III, 1990
Brisk Day I-III, 1990. Image Credit: Christie’s

 

His portraiture with its flat colors, hard and restrained lines, and flat blockish composition became the space where Ada’s nature is explored. Her sharp face sits against fields of yellow, framed by her black hair and her striking eyebrows, and as Ada has changed and developed over the years so too has Alex’s depictions of her. In the words of Ada:

“We didn’t take pictures of each other…he painted.”

Big Red Smile, 1995
Andrew Wyeth’s Big Red Smile, 1995. Image Credit: Museo Reina Sofia

 

The Katz’ story is perhaps not the most scandalous or salacious of artist/muse relationships. Yet, it remains one of the most beautiful. Taken as a body of work the portraits of Ada track a great love that has spanned decades and will stand the test of time. Theirs is a story free of rusted shovels, fistfights, or secret romance, and thus, unlike many of the other stories examined in these posts it is the most universal. Their relationship is like the style of the canvases: it is direct, it is sharply focused, beautifully coloured and composed.

Ada and Alex, 1980
Ada and Alex, 1980. Image Credit: Christie’s

 

Featured Image: Photograph of Alex and Ada, 1969. Image Credit: Smithsonian Archives of American Art