Dark Eyes is one of twenty works produced by contemporary artists for the Cubitt Print Box in 2000. Cubitt is an artist-run gallery and studio complex in north London. In 2001 the complex moved from King’s Cross to Islington and the prints were commissioned as part of a drive to raise funds to help finance the move, and to support future exhibitions and events at the new gallery space. All the artists who contributed to the project had previously taken part in Cubitt’s programme. The portfolio was produced in an edition of 100 with twenty artists’ proofs; Tate’s copy is number sixty-six in the series.
Dark Eyes is a woodcut portrait of Ada Katz, the artist’s wife and most frequent model. The print is executed in dense black ink on porous paper. The subject is an attractive middle-aged woman. Her face is depicted close up in three-quarter profile. She turns toward the viewer, smiling warmly, her sleek dark hair brushing neatly against her shoulders. The top of her blouse or dress is visible; a speckled scarf or collar offsets the white skin of her face and throat. The background of the print is black, heightening the luminous quality of her face. Her eyes and full lips are rendered in the same rich black.
Katz is a senior figure in American painting known predominantly for his group portraits of haute bourgeois society in New York (see Hiroshi and Marcia, 1981, Tate T03805). His subjects are beautiful and moneyed and he approaches them in an anthropological way, documenting their clothes and gestures, often in precise, frieze-like configurations. His aim is to create images that are very much of their time and place: upper-middle class New York in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His interest is in capturing fleeting moments and transient impressions; Dark Eyes relates to a series of paintings of smiles.
Katz’s style has been described by the critic David Sylvester as ‘serenely impersonal and impassive’ (Sylvester, p.13). This calm, detached manner is particularly interesting in relation to the medium of this print. Dark Eyes is made with a technique associated in the modern period primarily with German Expressionism, but Katz’s woodcut is resolutely unexpressive. The woman’s smile conveys little emotional interiority but is rather a marker of her social role like her perfectly coiffed hair and carefully applied lipstick. Katz’s woodcutting technique echoes the precision of her grooming, eschewing rough edges for a more polished result.
David Sylvester, ed., Alex Katz: Twenty Five Years of Painting, exhibition catalogue, Saatchi Gallery, London, 1997.
Merlin James, Alex Katz: The Woodcuts and Linocuts, New York, 2001.
Nicholas P. Maravell and Carter Ratcliff, Alex Katz: The Complete Prints, New York, 1983.