A New Hong Kong Exhibition Introduces Alex Katz and His ‘Present-Tense’ Painting to the Asian Market

Katz's show at Sotheby’s Hong Kong S|2 gallery could benefit from growing Asian interest in figurative work by American artists.

The global art market may finally be catching up to the 91-year-old Alex Katz. Today heralded as one of Pop art’s precursors, Katz established himself in New York City in the 1950s with portraits and landscapes that favored flattened, clean shapes and bold fields of color over the then-dominant Abstract Expressionist style. This unique aesthetic secured Katz a well-regarded reputation within the New York art world. However, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, Katz’s worldwide market recognition has been comparatively slow coming. 

That appears to be changing. Coinciding with Hong Kong’s “Art Month,” Sotheby’s Hong S|2 Gallery is presenting the city’s debut solo exhibition of Katz’s work. Jonathan Wong, S|2 Gallery Director, told artnet that the eponymous exhibition “ALEX KATZ” signals a burgeoning global interest in the artist. “Katz is such a senior figure in American art,” Wong said. “In Asia, the enthusiasm for his work is part of a greater trend for figurative work by American artists, alongside that of George Condo and Jonas Wood.” The gallery exhibition also overlaps with “Alex Katz,” a devoted museum show on view at South Korea’s Daegu Art Museum through May 26.

Alex Katz, <em>Vivien</em>, 2016. Courtesy of Sotheby’s S|2 Hong Kong Gallery.

Alex Katz, Vivien, 2016. Courtesy of Sotheby’s S|2 Hong Kong Gallery.

Katz has described his practice as “painting in the present tense,” a desire for immediacy often captured in portraits of his friends and family, most famously his wife and muse Ada, or in his surroundings, in his depictions of flowers or tree branches. These career-spanning themes are succinctly captured in the exhibition’s 23 works, which were chosen, Wong said, to “showcase the creative output from throughout his entire career, and place works from his early period alongside his recent paintings, so that collectors could have a better understanding of his development.”

Alex Katz in New York City, 2012. Photo: Christopher Lane/Contour by Getty Images.

If auction prices are any indication, it does appear Katz is experiencing a late-career boom. A new auction record was established for Katz this month when his Ada and Louise (1987) broke the million-dollar auction mark, selling at Christie’s London for £974,250 ($1.29 million). This new record superseded the previous record, just set in May 2018 for his The Light I (1975), which earned $951,000 at Sotheby’s.

Wong believes there is even more potential for growth: “His market is so active right now,” he said. “We believe that Katz’s bold and pioneering paintings will resonate well in Asia and create new dialogues and perspectives within the current art scene, allowing both established and first-time collectors to rediscover the diversity of contemporary art.”

Asked if he had a favorite work from the exhibition, Wong pointed to Red Tulips (1967). Sotheby’s had sold the work at auction for $690,000 back in 2007, then a remarkable price for the artist. “We are very happy to have it back,” he said.

Alex Katz, Ascension (2002). Courtesy of Sotheby’s S|2 Hong Kong Gallery.

“ALEX KATZ” is on view through April 1, 2019, at Sotheby’s S|2 Hong Kong Gallery. 

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