In the 1950s, Alex Katz’s large-scale realistic portraits and landscapes challenged the prevailing taste for abstraction that defined the New York school. Keenly interested in film, advertising, the art of Henri Matisse, and Japanese prints, Katz synthesized these influences into works that focused on his impressions of modern life. His ideas grew from ink drawings and then pencil sketches, which he enlarged to guide his paintings. Employing hard-edged lines and closely cropped forms, he posed stylish figures against flat fields of intense color.
Katz’s approach to printmaking closely aligns with his interests in painting. Although he began experimenting with printmaking in the early 1950s, it became key to his practice in the mid-1960s. By manipulating color, line, and scale, his prints reexamine, distill, and pare down ideas first developed on canvas. He explained: “A lot of these things are experiments to where I have never been in the paintings. … I’m really trying to make things immediate.” Katz has produced dozens of print editions using a variety of techniques.
One of Katz’s favorite subjects is his wife Ada, featured in over two hundred canvases and numerous drawings and prints. The three impressions that form Brisk Day (1990) repeat Ada in the same three-quarters pose, close-up, using three distinct techniques: woodcut, aquatint, and silkscreen. Katz wraps Ada in a bright red coat and positions her against a warm pink background. Her striking oval face is framed by her dark bobbed hair, and her large brown eyes engage with the viewer. Close examination reveals how Katz considered each technique and made adjustments to his images as he revised them through the printing process. He explained: “When you work on a print you start out and then after you get the first proof you change your ideas. You go with the material.” In its dramatic interplay between bold colors and flattened forms with distinct edges, the woodcut captures a youthful Ada with kohl-lined eyes, a seductive gaze, and pouting, full lips. In the aquatint, the colors are rosier and closer in hue. Ada’s hair is darker, her features are more angular at the nose and chin, and slight lines appear by her eyes and mouth. In the silkscreen, shaded areas near her eyes, nose, mouth, and ear add modeled contours and volume to her face.
A small oil sketch of Ada in a gray coat was a point of departure for Katz’s Brisk Day. These three prints provide valuable commentary as to how Katz’s practices in different media produce improvisations and variations on well-known themes. The first works by Katz to enter the collection, these prints join two earlier lithographs, Day Lily 1 and Daily Lily 2, both from 1969.
1. Marietta Mautner Markhof and Klaus Albrecht Schröder, Alex Katz Prints (Vienna: Hatje Cantz, 2010), 31, 35.
2. Markhof and Schröder, Alex Katz Prints, 41.
3. David Cohen, “Alex Katz Prints by Marietta Mautner Markhof and Klaus Albrecht Schröder,” Print Quarterly 28, no. 2 (June 2011): 220.
4. Cohen, “Alex Katz Prints”, 222.
Text by Renée Maurer, adapted from Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century (The Phillips Collection in association with Giles, 2021)