One of the least noticed gallery defections of recent years occurred when the painter Alex Katz left Marlborough Gallery for PaceWildenstein. However, once it did happen, the results were immediate -- suddenly the largely forgotten Katz was on the art world's mind.
Lately, critics are paying attention and collectors are buying. Yet, what has really changed? Certainly not the quality of the work. Katz still remains, at least to this writer's eye, a minor talent -- more adept at illustration than serious art.
Katz's earliest efforts in the late 1950s and 1960s were commendable. But his painting rapidly degenerated into highly commercial imagery that is more about design and economy than art. If Katz had pushed the illustrative quality of his work (a la Saul Steinberg), it may have resulted in more authentic work.
The odd thing is that his paintings were still tolerable in the 1970s. But the last remnants of credibility were lost with the invention of his Cut-Out paintings of the 1980s. These portraits and full-figure images are painted on shaped pieces of aluminum which are, in turn, mounted to free-standing bases.
Another observation is that collectors apparently prefer Katz's later paintings rather than those of the 1960s. These works were more painterly, featuring thicker paint application and looser brushwork. Katz became far less interesting in the 1970s and, unfortunately, has retained the style of these years up until the present.
Basically, collectors seem to gravitate toward Katz's most common subject matter, his striking wife, Ada. The next most popular images are of various unidentified women, followed by close-ups of flowers. A distant fourth choice are portraits of men. However, a portrait of a man and woman in the same picture definitely has an audience.
Collectors also display a preference in relation to scale. Generally, paintings in the four-foot to six-foot range (the size most preferred by interior decorators) are in the most demand.
Alex Katz's market has its share of mysteries. How could two highly regarded galleries like Robert Miller and Marlborough (previously), and PaceWildenstein (currently), represent an artist as slick as Katz? The answer is that the work is highly salable.
Even Katz's large current works that depict elements of landscape smack of finding a resting place in the boardroom of a conservative company or in the living room of a collector unsure of his taste. Although Katz doesn't appear that often at auction, when his work does come up, the results are usually shaky.
Certainly, there are worse artists out there than Alex Katz. However, I don't know of many that sell for six-figure prices and who are with one of the top galleries in the world.