Alex Katz
Ursula Smiles 2, 1993
Oil on linen
243.8 x 182.9 cm
Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

Gallery 203

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The series Smiles (1993–94) by American artist Alex Katz comprises eleven portraits of women, all set against a black background. Katz often turns to his closest circle for the subjects of his portraits (his wife, friends, and so on, frequently identified by name in the painting titles). In this series, the cold, neutral backgrounds contrast with the sitters’ casual smiles, a dissonance that is heightened by the harsh lighting and that underscores the flatness of the pictures.

Moreover, the friendliness and familiarity of the facial expressions are occasionally contradicted by tense poses. Katz does not aim to represent the sitter’s personality, but rather to present a more profound reflection on the nature of representation and the perception of images. The complex figure-ground relationship and the large format of the portraits are both characteristic of his larger oeuvre. Though he is occasionally associated with Pop art, Katz has rejected this connection.

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