Why does the simple portrait Black and Brown Blouse by Alex Katz make me want to cry?
- Flat canvas full of feelings
- The unconscious pull of deep relationships
- A proprietary technique stays relevant
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Alex Katz loved to paint his wife, Ada Katz; and we can see why in his portrait Black and Brown Blouse. She has such an expressive face… and her eyes draw us into a sea of sadness. He has painted her more than 250 times since they married in 1957. But along with portraits of Ada, Katz also loves to paint landscapes. No matter which he portrays, though, he has the same distinctive style. There’s nothing quite like the Alex Katz closeup.
He brings the viewer deep into the sand dunes on a beach, or the figurative planes of a friend. We get an intimate look that’s also stripped down to its most essential parts. On the surface it gives the painting an overall flat appearance. It reminds me of cutout 70s canvas screen prints. But that’s far too dismissive a perspective for this masterpiece. For instance, there’s such emotion in Black and Brown Blouse that we know instantly it’s not just cutout forms joined together to form a picture. This masterpiece gives us a real person having a genuine experience.
With the title Black and Brown Blouse, Katz points to what Ada is wearing. Yet this painting isn’t only a fashion moment. It reveals an individual having a particular emotional experience. That’s the difference between a mere picture of a person and a work of art. This portrays more than its literal subject. We know what Ada was feeling in the moment when her husband painted her. In fact, we know a bit about her specific sadness. There are many ways to feel sorrow, from heartbreak, to grief, and even into more modes of misery. We can see the weight of Ada’s anguish in her soulful eyes.
Katz gives us this incredible depth of feeling that pulls us into the painting. It feels a bit strange because Black and Brown Blouse looks almost like an animation cell in its flatness. So, slipping into it seems like when the live action movie character falls into a cartoon world. It’s unreal. Why do I also feel such genuine compassion for this woman at the same time? That’s the mastery of Alex Katz.
He created a proprietary technique in making his blown up portraits. It borrows a bit from the Pop Art book. But he made it his own. Using his beloved wife for a model helps us to see her through his eyes. Katz looked into those morose eyes so many times that they were imprinted into the back of his brain. He could share them with us from his unconscious. And that’s where some of the best stuff originates in the art world.
How he Does it – Alex Katz’s Technique
When Katz creates a large portrait like Black and Brown Blouse, he starts with a small oil sketch on masonite board. These model sittings might last an hour and a half. His next step involves a detailed drawing in pencil or charcoal. He keeps the depiction small at this point and often has the subject return to sit for him in person again. Only then does Katz enlarge the drawing. He may use an overhead projector for this part. Then he’ll transfer it to an enormous canvas.
When Katz does this transfer he uses the same technique Renaissance artists practiced. Katz pushes powdered pigment through tiny perforations pricked into the projected image on the canvas. This duplicates the composition on the surface. That way his next step is simple – fill in the pinpointed outlines. Katz pre-mixes chosen colors before painting the canvas. These final sessions of painting can take him six or seven hours.
From this technique, we can see why Katz often chose to paint his wife, Ada. There’s not a lot of room in this method for emotional resonance. So, built-in feelings help and, thanks the painter’s skill, they shine through. Black and Brown Blouse gives us some of the saddest eyes in art history. That’s what makes it a masterpiece.
Black and Brown Blouse – FAQs
Is Alex Katz alive? If so, how old is he?
Alex Katz was born July 24, 1927. So, he’s in his 90s and still kicking as a prominent American painter. His subject matter remains the same, with Ada Katz, the painter’s wife, often the sole component in his work.
In fact, you can see a wonderful example of this in the Manhattan F train 57th street station. There you will find 19 gorgeous Katz portraits of Ada embedded into the walls in glass. These public art pieces offer an opportunity to appreciate the mastery of Katz for the small price of a subway ride.
What style of painter is Alex Katz?
Alex Katz combines elements of Pop Art with figurative portraiture. But I would call him an essentialist. He pares down his portraits to only the most crucial elements. Even with this stripping away, Katz portraits show tremendous insight and emotion thanks to his technique and close relationships with his subjects.
Enjoyed this Black and Brown Blouse analysis?
Check out these other essays on portraits.
Sotheby’s Katz bio
Cathleen McGuigan (August 2009), Alex Katz Is Cooler Than Ever – at the Wayback Machine – Smithsonian Magazine
De Antonio, Emile (1984), Painters Painting, a Candid History of The Modern Art Scene 1940–1970, Abbeville Press
Katz narrative bio on his site
Dore Ashton, American Art Since 1945, Oxford University Press, 1982
“Abstract Expressionist New York”. MoMA. Retrieved March 22, 2012
Lawrence Alloway, “Alex Katz Paints Ada”. Yale University Press, 2006
“Alex Katz: An American Way of Seeing”. Sara Hilden Art Museum, Musee de Grenoble, Museum Kurhaus Kleve, 2009