The Muse at the Museum
by Daniel Kunitz

Without ever having seen a photograph of her, I recognized Ada Katz immediately the first time I encountered her in person. She wasn't even standing near her somewhat less iconic husband, the artist Alex Katz. That's Ada, I thought: The mid-length black hair was now shot through with gray, but the face was unmistakable.

My experience was not unique; among viewers of contemporary art, Ada is one of the most famous faces of the last half-century. What is unique, however — what is, in fact, unparalleled in the recent history of fame — is that Ada is known to so many purely through the medium of paint. And it is she who presides, like a local deity, over "Alex Katz Paints Ada," a 48-year retrospective of the artist's work as seen through the prism of her image, opening tomorrow at the Jewish Museum.

The outstanding catalog accompanying the show offers 49 plates as well as a handful of other pictures in which Ada appears, and one suspects this gathering is not comprehensive. Hung thematically, the show picks out a tight 40 works. It is a brief, and enormously enjoyable, tour.

That it begins, in a section aptly titled "Style and Glamour," with a late picture, "Ada" (2005) seems, at least in one regard, an especially appropriate acknowledgement of the scale of Mr. Katz's multi-decade endeavor. The canvas itself is huge, 4 feet by 8 feet, and it depicts Ada's face from the middle of her forehead to not quite the tip of her chin — even a frame as large as this can't encompass her. Yet, compare this Ada to all the others: It is perhaps the only picture in which pathos is readily apparent. While there are hints of passion or sentiment in some other of the paintings, this one feels more heated, perhaps a bit sad.

Alex Katz is, of course, a notably cool painter. He doesn't do emotion. He attends to clothes and colors and forms, to style in its broadest sense. But style, be it artistic or otherwise, tends to display his character. One can chart the fashions of the 1950s through the beginning of the 21st century by what Ada wears, but, as viewers, we have no idea whether or not she is chic in her daily life or whether Mr. Katz wants to see her as chic.

Because Ada is beautiful and changeable, she serves Mr. Katz's style well. In the early 1960s, he saw the regal self-possession — and black helmet hair — Ada shared with Jacqueline Kennedy, and so he painted her in a pillbox hat in 1961 and then, in 1963, hidden behind sleek, dark sunglasses. Indeed, she takes on many roles: a model posed in front of shimmering water, brilliantly rendered in "Ada in Bathing Cap" (1965); a young mother, caught turning away from a painting of her son in "Ada in Polka Dot Blouse" (1975), an urban sophisticate out for an evening with her husband in "Ada and Alex" (1980).

It seems Mr. Katz detected his wife's manifold nature early. The section of the show titled "Ada, Ada, Ada" contains several multiple portraits, ratcheting up both the technical flourish and the complexity as the years go by. "Ada Ada" (1959) presents her — in the manic, expressive brush strokes common to many artists of the period — twice, each version holding an identical pose and wearing the same blue coat. By the time of "The Black Jacket" (1972), she appears five times, in various poses and from different aspects, her face carved and tinted by a single light source. The paint handling is smooth, like the surface of a calm lake.

Although everything in his canvases is sharply legible, Mr. Katz's approach is too stylized and technically savvy, his sensibility too formally inventive, to be merely realist. The marks he makes have a geometry entirely independent of their descriptive uses. Consider the raindrops in "Blue Umbrella 2" (1972) or the zigzag play of shadow in "Ada's Night" (1998) or the calligraphy of beach detritus in "Grey Day" (1990). His backgrounds tend to be flat planes of color, on occasion enlivened by abstract squibs.

What one might call his insouciant formalism is best on display in the magnificent cutouts, where the shape a person makes is literally sculpted on flat metal or board. The show includes two of the most impressive: "Ada With Nose" (1969–70), where a nearly 5-foot-tall slice of Ada's face in profile — one could write a poem to that arching Italian nose — looks at a rear slice of a full-length Ada; and "Johns Loft" (1969), in which the individual characters of a social drama are painted on cut aluminum, then allowed to frolic on the white space of a wall.

All these elements — the social insights, the attention to detail, the technical brio, the formal inventiveness — come together in works that seem effortless, even simple, performances. Robert Storr, in the catalog, likens it to jazz: "Paint it once, paint it again the point that rehearsal and virtuosic performance, the score and the riff, are impossible to tell apart." Cool jazz, that is, because that fluidity of execution, which one also finds in sport, entails removal, holding one's material at a distance. It looks easy because the artist seems so nonchalant.

But getting back to that first picture, the recent Ada with the touch of sadness in the eyes: Perhaps she isn't sad, but is instead overcome with the realization that this supremely unemotional painter, this paragon of cool, has in fact transformed the entire span of their association into a slow-burning, deeply emotional celebration of his wife.

Tomorrow until March 18 (1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street, 212-423-3200).