Painted Lady
by Leslie Camhi

A muse’s long-term career prospects are, at best, uncertain. “After Picasso, only God,” remarked Dora Maar, the artist’s mistress and herself a gifted photographer who, after their nine-year affair, passed the latter half of her life in monastic seclusion. Modigliani’s last lover, Jeanne Hébuterne, she of the swanlike neck and almond eyes, met her end with a leap from a fifth-story window, the day after her painter’s untimely demise. The flame-haired Elizabeth Siddal, a favorite Pre-Raphaelite model and eventual wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, poisoned herself with laudanum. And Lee Miller, the celebrated beauty (and later wartime photographer) who shone like the sun in Man Ray’s portraits, anesthetized herself with alcohol. Indeed, “The Lives of the Muses,” by Francine Prose, often reads as a cautionary tale. Survive your apotheosis into art, and you risk being sidelined by history.

Ada Katz, whose musedom is fast approaching the half-century mark, sat at home recently, looking at some 40 of her husband’s portraits of her, the focus of “Alex Katz Paints Ada,” a show opening at the Jewish Museum in New York on Oct. 27. (Her husband, Alex Katz, was to be interviewed later; unaccustomed, perhaps, to going second, he could be seen prowling between his studio, the kitchen and the front door.)

Her presence is as quietly all-pervasive as the smell of oil paint in this temple of art, a luminous and sparely furnished SoHo loft. But if there’s a secret to her longevity at the center of her husband’s oeuvre, she’s not about to reveal it. In the 1960’s, he portrayed her as a sleekly mysterious American sphinx in sunglasses and a sweater. Garbo talked; Ada, never. Such is her deep reserve that you can spend a very pleasant hour tête-à-tête with her and still wonder if you have ever really met.

In fact, her conversation has much in common with his paintings. In both, the past appears smoothed of fine lines and blemishes (if indeed it ever had any), with its broad outlines intact, a vision at once entirely matter-of-fact and oddly elusive.

This petite woman with the uncannily familiar face was born Ada Del Moro in the Bronx to Italian parents from Abruzzi. From her mother, a practiced seamstress who for years made most of her daughter’s clothing, she inherited (according to her husband) her acute sense of style and disarmingly wide smile. She says she more closely resembles her father, who had “Asiatic eyes” and “sensuous lips.” (The classic Roman nose is still unspoken for.)

This muse trained at Brooklyn College and New York University as a research biologist. (A woman! In the 1950’s! Yes, she says, there weren’t many.) She went to Milan on a Fulbright scholarship to study tumor genetics and was working at Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York when she met her future spouse, during the opening of his two-person show at the artist-run Tanager Gallery, on East 10th Street. (He says she was “already an art-world legend”; she claims that she was “shy about going into galleries.”)

That was in October 1957; they married the next February. Did she sense she was signing on to be represented into the next millennium? “Never,” she says. “The thing I do remember from when we met is that I was sitting with my hands in my lap, and this guy that I was interested in was looking at my eyes, my ears, my shoulders. The whole thing was just very sensual. And I didn’t think I could handle it. But then it became just this thing that he did. I was sitting and he was painting, and that was it.”

Did she feel an obligation to maintain her beauty in the service of his art? “Oh, no,” she says with a laugh. “I was overwhelmed at first. But he was painting other people at the same time. He did several double portraits — of me, of Robert Rauschenberg, of others. I was very interested, I learned a lot about painting. And I loved, I mean, liked the idea that he was painting me. But after a while it wasn’t such a shock.”

Emotion held in check. That, too, is vintage Katz. (Or is it something he learned from her?) Even his most intimate images, like the startlingly lush “Upside Down Ada” (1965) — a cinematic, lover’s-eye view, from dark, cascading hair to the barest hint of a shoulder — are most powerful for what they don’t reveal. There, viewers can only imagine the nude.

The Ada of the paintings tends to be stylishly dressed, but her allure is less a matter of her clothes than of how she wears them. Of a shocking-pink raincoat that shows up in one canvas against a dramatic black background, she recalls: “It was very cheap. In fact, I bought another one in navy.”

“The Black Dress” (1960), an Egyptianate frieze of six raven-haired Adas posing next to Katz’s portrait of their friend, the poet James Schuyler, suggests the admiring glances of a husband who notes his supremely poised wife and her compact economy of gesture from across a crowded room; her aura is at once understated and utterly constant, like the idea of God or the weather. The dress, Ada says, was “nothing extraordinary,” though his picture of her in it summons a Platonic ideal of cocktail attire and comportment.

Their early life together revolved around an art world, tiny by today’s standards, and its rituals — Tuesday-night openings uptown, Fridays at the Club on Eighth Street, Saturday outings to galleries and museums. Sometimes she’d accompany him to the Cedar Street Tavern, the legendary artists’ hangout, where, a decade earlier, Jackson Pollock might have been found pulling off the men’s-room door.

Then, as now, her ubiquity in her husband’s art inspired a certain degree of speculation. “Elaine de Kooning said, ‘Oh, well, you paint Ada all the time because her face has an easy outline, and she never changes her hair or anything,”’ Ada recalls. “Another time, she told me, ‘I’m looking at your face, and you and Harold Rosenberg”’ — the art critic — “‘are the only ones who have those thick eyebrows.’ I thought, Oh, my God, that was very funny.”

And this is one muse who says she never gave her immortality in art a second thought. When the couple’s son, Vincent, a poet, was born in 1960, Ada left her job, never to return, but her roles in the paintings expanded. The bathing beauty, the chicly retiring bohemian, the cocktail hostess and (increasingly) the self-assured woman of the world could also be cast as an up-to-date Madonna. (Starting around midmarriage and continuing for about a decade, she produced plays with poets and artists, though she downplays the endeavor as “not a moneymaker.”) Most people have family photo albums from when their children are young; the Katzes have a body of work. “We didn’t take pictures of each other,” she recalls. “He painted.”

Alex Katz, when he sits down a bit later, calls his wife “the perfect model.”

“She’s both a European beauty and an American beauty,” he says. “She’s like Dora Maar, the same kind of face, but then her smile is the American-beauty smile.”

His continuing fascination with her visage is evident even in a canvas from last year; though her hair is now smartly streaked with gray, she’s still forthright and inscrutable.

“It’s strange, the whole thing,” he continues. “Ada was on a Madame Curie track, working 60 hours a week. She didn’t have that much intention of getting married. And I believe there were probably three guys in New York she could relate to. So I just got lucky. I fit what she wanted, or what would have been acceptable.”

So it was all up to her? “Yes, definitely,” he replies. “No one in their right mind would have said no” to her.

This muse chose her artist. Did she also mold him? By what magical osmosis did her fiercely willed modesty come to resemble the supremely controlled surface of his art? Rubbing up against his uncompromising vision for some 50 years may have worn the rough edges of her personality so smooth that they’re barely perceptible, but she says: “We don’t have ups and downs. We live together, and he works right here. So if it were really bad, we’d have to stop.”

And to hear him tell it, she’s the unyielding one. “She’s intense,” he claims. “There’s no second place in her life. That’s the side you don’t see. She’s very discreet about that.”