While it is a beautiful piece to view with no extra information, Alex Katz’s Ada in the Rain (Blue Umbrella) is a work that, like most art, cannot be fully comprehended without context. There could not be a more fitting piece for Ar[t]chive as this show is all about context; telling America’s history through the art that its citizens produced. Since their marriage in 1958, Alex Katz has made his wife, Ada, immortal in countless works that feature her as his muse. Though the Grinnell College collection only features one of these works, the theme of context still shines through. Pieces that feature Ada offer to our timeline the fascinating juxtaposition of both Katz’s and Ada’s personal timelines and the lack of physical context that is almost always present in Katz’s representations. Through his print Ada in the Rain (Blue Umbrella), Katz shows a woman at one brief, passing moment of her life, captured and reproduced for the viewer.
Ada in the Rain depicts only Ada, complete from the shoulders up, and provides the viewer an opportunity to really study in depth the face, clothes, and expression of the subject. Ada’s face is indeed the focal point of this piece, being located almost in the exact center of the rectangular lithograph and surrounded by a bright headscarf that draws the eye. Ada’s face, however, is somewhat unremarkable. She has large, but not exaggerated features: big doe-brown eyes that have heavy lashes, large eyebrows, a strong nose, and full red lips. Her hair is dark brown, the same as her eyes, and contains a few light streaks that serve to add depth to her hair and highlight her face. Besides these basic features, however, Ada does not have much to distinguish her. The viewer cannot even tell around what age Ada might be. This is how Ada is shown in all of Katz’s works of her: she is focused and ageless. Only in his more recent works does Ada acquire gray streaked hair, making her look more wise and distinguished than ever. Her face is pale, except for a few bits of shadow beneath her eyes and on the left side of her face. Ada’s face is also the only part of the piece that contains the defining shadows that indicate the light source may be coming from the front right, according to the viewer’s perspective. Everything else in the piece is flat. For Katz, it appears as though Ada is flawless: an enigmatic woman caught in a moment of contemplation.
The only aspect of the work that gives us any clue as to Ada’s identity is her clothing. The scarf is poppy red, white, and is decorated in a paisley pattern. Where the scarf is tied around her chin there also are stripes of royal blue. This scarf indicates the fashion consciousness of Ada, and her well kept hair is hidden un-mussed beneath it. Her colorful yet conservative dress indicates that she may belong somewhere after the colorless 50s and radical 60s, but before the flashy 80s. Below this elaborate headscarf Ada wears a bulky but non-descript black coat. The shapes of the coat bulge out from what we imagine Ada’s form to be, looking thick and round. Even though the viewer cannot see Ada’s hands, she appears to be holding an umbrella. The alternate title to this piece, Blue Umbrella, follows suit of many of Katz’s portraits of Ada such as Black Scarf, Grey Ribbon, and Orange Hat, where what Ada is wearing denotes the mood of the portrait. Here the rain and the blue umbrella are gloomy, as is Ada’s large coat. But her bright headscarf and focused gaze give an air of determination and spunk to the piece, despite the rain.
So far I have only acknowledged what the eye initially sees—the figure of Ada. The piece has a clear foreground, middle ground, and background. Ada is the middle ground, and in front of her is the rain. These stopped drops, frozen on the page, large and distinct, accentuate the illusion of suspended time. Ada is preserved in this moment, caught gazing out of the frame on a rainy day. Her expression seems almost unaware of observation. In the background Katz moves beyond the shapes and colors that draw our eye. Ada has no environment to speak of, nothing but the creamy yellow-white of the paper. The only hint of a location is two light black horizontal smudges behind Ada. The lack of a physical space is one characteristic that Katz is known for. Often his portraits are on solid colored backgrounds or in nondescript locations. When Katz paints Ada she often fills the entire frame with her face, leaving no room for context.
Ada exists within Katz’s body of work as an astounding muse—one who ages little and remains a mystery, offering only a sphinx-like stare and the occasional wide, disarming smile. Within this series of portraits, Ada exists mostly alone, embodying her elusive role as a muse and New York social fixture. Though she has surely seen and experienced many American triumphs and losses, Ada remains mostly unchanged, undefined by the world around her. Ada is on our Timeline because of her relative place in history, because of her husband’s moment in America’s ongoing artistic timeline. But the way Katz paints Ada, the way she is pictured here in Ada in the Rain, it is obvious that Ada is beyond a static linear context, she is a moment frozen and perpetual, outside of time.
Beattie, Ann. Alex Katz. New York: Abrams, 1987. Print.
Sandler, Irving. Alex Katz: A Retrospective. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Print.
Storr, Robert, Lawrence Alloway, James Schuyler, and Alex Katz. Alex Katz Paints Ada. New York: Jewish Museum, under the auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2006. Print.
Alex Katz occupies an interesting niche as an American artist. Born in Brooklyn in 1927 and raised in Queens, he has long been stationed in New York City, a place both quintessentially American and notably diverse. He was a first generation American; his parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. After a brief stint in the Navy, Katz received art training at Cooper Union from 1946 to 1949, which enforced Cubist styling that would inform the future of his work (Sandler 7). While Katz’s art has dabbled in still-life, and collage, his major and most well known works are portraits and landscapes, and have a distinct, figural, pop-art style all his own. Unlike the Impressionists and Cubists before him, Katz strove to minimize his gestural brushwork, focusing instead on the shape and color of the figure, capturing energy rather than movement, emphasizing the flatness of the canvas, as the Cubists had done before him (Sandler 9-10). Texture, he found, diminished color, and multiple points of view in paintings fragmented the work (Sandler 12). He objected to the popular 50s style of Gesture Painting, which caused him to be criticized by his peers in the New York School. But as it became evident that the gestural style that had been so popular could no longer be sustained as avant-garde, Katz’s work came forward as the beginning of New Perceptual Realism and a precursor to Pop Art (Sandler 16).
Katz approached his work in a very direct manner, seeking above all to combine two elements: pictorial flatness and recognizable likeness to the subject (Sandler 20). As he refined his style, he began to experiment more and more with scale, even doing a larger than life billboard in New York’s Times Square in 1977. Katz has even at times eliminated the traditional canvas and worked instead with large cut-outs. Living in so many tumultuous times in America—the Depression, WWII, and the radical 60s—has shaped Katz’s relationship with America. His works reflect a deep sociability, an interest in fashion, and the people within his social network. His works often focus on groups of people within their social element, or on individual people with whom he has a personal relationship. Katz has received several Lifetime Achievement awards in the past decade, as well as other honors to recognize him as one of the American artists whose personal style and grace has never gone out of fashion. Katz’s presence has been felt in the American art world since he entered it in the 50s, and has remained to today and beyond.
Sandler, Irving. Alex Katz: A Retrospective. New York: Harry N. Abrams,