RED—a long-drawn-out, intense red, monochrome through and through. This saturated, warm red unfolds its very own effect, a lasting presence. Hear Coca?Cola, and you see red. This red is dominant, powerful, melodic, and permeated by an infinite number of pigments that weave an impenetrable dense network of surfaces that will allow nothing less than pure color timbre. In its entire extent, this becomes the resonance chamber for the white typography of the double word Coca-Cola. The new series Coca-Cola Girl by Alex Katz, the master of the game between figuration and abstraction, also manages with this equally simple color chord. It combines much of what makes up Alex Katz’s art: his unpretentious coolness and lasciviousness, a few suggestive narrative elements that are only very loosely related in individual sequences. All this conjures the fascination and joy of summer and carefreeness. Subtly, he processes ideas and elements that tie in with the advertising strategies of the major global brand, but without actually quoting them. In a sequence of eleven motifs, he creates his own style of narrative, which he recites with his individual imagery that is as striking, illustrative, and subtle as it is unapproachable.
With the Coca-Cola Girl Alex Katz turns to a global advertising label which had developed like no other by the beginning of the twentieth century to what was then the sole worldwide brand. To this day it embodies the attitude to life of generations, forms a link across states and cultures, and enjoys international cult status pure and simple. Interestingly enough, this applies not just to the drink itself, but from the beginning, also to the design of the product. Never before had a ‘corporate design’ been given so much attention when a product was placed on the American market as was the case with Coca-Cola—a design which has remained true to itself, with few modifications: with its catchy logo, the eponymic name, which immediately indicates what the drink consists of. All this testifies to a message that is as simple as it is stringent and convincing. The name, which is derived from the two main components (coca leaf and kola nut), was merged by the two initial Cs into a lively logo in the Spencerian script which is still used today . The similarity of the two words creates an alliteration that is as easily memorable as it is uncomplicated. The now classic red of the logo’s base color is said to have come from the bottling barrels and was used for the very first newspaper ad on May 29, 1886 in the Atlanta Journal. It is a very special saturated hue with a high proportion of red,1 which is inseparably associated with the product: “The color has become a promise.”2
The logo developed at that time emerged as a constant eye-catcher—ubiquitously in the advertising and on the product itself—and used everything needed for success even in today’s product promotions: simple in the typography, appealing and positive in the message. The large-scale advertising strategy focused on the memorable logo as well as on pithy, catchy advertising slogans that praised the drink. Soon, cinema and television advertising was added: here, where the corporation, now the owner of a global brand, increasingly paid attention to a rousing soundtrack. More and more frequently, stars from the music scene or the world of sports were, and are, engaged to put across the positive attitude to life that the brand seeks to convey. The advertising professionals evoke a lively feeling that is modern, confident and positive, embodying both male and female philosophies of life; they have cleverly created one of those brands that come across as classless and ageless.
Coca-Cola has been the absolute cult drink for more than 130 years, something which would be unthinkable without intensive marketing. The rapid rise of Coca?Cola is said to be due to the intense advertising strategy under Asa Candler’s leadership; back in 1888 he acquired the rights to the mixture and set aside an unusually high advertising budget for the time. Thus even in 1900 he was spending 85,000 dollars, and by 1912 no less than a million.3 With his marketing he struck out along new paths, sending for example, sales reps all over the country; they were told to praise Coca-Cola and other wonder drugs with basically unsustainable promises of cure. In the cities, advertising was aimed at business people, with Candler promising “A Coke at 8 works till 11.” The slogan still in use, “Drink Coca-Cola,” also dates from this time. Primarily responsible for the advertising at this time was Frank Robinson, who had joined Candler and initiated a turnaround in 1905. He launched the image of Coca-Cola as a soft drink under the slogan “Delicious and Refreshing.” The beverage was coming under attack from consumer organizations on account of its alleged cocaine and caffeine content, so it helped to label it in advertising as absolutely “pure,” “invigorating,” and as an alternative to medicine.
At the turn of the century, female beauties were used in advertising for the first time, the actress Hilda Clark, for example, and the blonde opera singer Lillian Nordica being hired for the ads. The first advertisement with Hilda Clark was launched in 1903, staging her as an upper-class girl with pink rose petals, a lush frilly blouse, and a Coca-Cola drink in a silvered tea glass.4 At first, the drink was presented as a precious rarity, on which the beautiful woman was to bestow a special gloss of nobility and cultivation. With the soprano Lillian Nordica too, who appeared in the major opera houses, the company advertised across the board, concentrating its image in the fashion magazines that proliferated all over the United States: “In 1905, Nordica appeared in a full color magazine ad that was published in leading magazines of the time including Good Housekeeping, Munsey’s Magazine and Scribner’s Magazine.”5 Here she is presented as a grand diva, in lush robe and with a large feather fan, and unmistakably a Coca-Cola bottle stands on its own pedestal (fig. 1). While in Hilda Clark’s time the drink had not had cult status, it seems to have achieved this by 1905, and was staged as such. The stardom of the singer Lillian Nordica was cleverly linked to the popular beverage, which as a result of massive advertising and a low price was ever more quickly becoming the drink a mass leisure society wanted. To date, the link forged between Coca?Cola and beautiful women (and men) has remained the benchmark of advertising strategy and success.
Alex Katz loves fashion—but the casual sporty kind. He is one of the few great artists to have no reservations about associating himself with famous labels and their advertising. He is thus in the direct tradition of Pop Art, which for its part gladly adopted the mechanisms of advertising, its visuals, and the phenomenon of mass influence. Remember Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol in particular, with his soap quote in the Brillo Boxes, the Campbell Soups, and the media celebrity-cult he re-energized in the 1963 Double Elvis silkscreen. Alex Katz, however, cannot be directly assigned only to Pop Art, and does not simply use Cola advertising with its unmistakable logo; rather, he builds up a completely unique image strategy that is at most remotely reminiscent of it, without, however, quoting it (so to speak) verbatim. Only his painting – supple, melodic, strident and yet highly nuanced in its color composition – oscillates between narrative elements, the simplification of painterly and compositional structures, and an imagery that reduces itself to abstraction, so that at first glance it does indeed recall advertising posters. In fact, it often suggests a representation of what has been seen and experienced, while developing an abstraction thereof, working with references and quotations. When viewed in the light, it already contradicts the very idea of imitation or copy—even as an ironic gesture.
Alex Katz takes a fundamentally different approach, even when he’s into Calvin Klein fashion, or when in 2015 he designed the entire, gigantic window façade of Barney’s New York department store as one big catwalk, using it to present huge oversize black-and-white prints (fig. 2, page over). Especially in black-and-white he abstracts even more intensively, everything is reduced to a few lines and succinct motifs. They are indirectly reminiscent of his numerous cut-outs, which sometimes reflect life situations and sometimes push fashion toward a natural situation taken from everyday life. The more strongly the simplification leads to abstraction, the more complex is Katz’s painterly approach. The lightness of the painting may at first distract from the actual complexity, which however becomes clear in the long term: ”As in much of Katz’ oeuvre, the figures exist not as characters in a narrative but rather as manifestations of his ongoing exploration into formal arrangement, interrogating the particularities of perception and optics.”6
It is also inseparable from this that Alex Katz prefers to show his models and sitters in motion, if only in the sense that a dress or a scarf flutters in the wind. The movement creates elegance and lightness. It underlines the naturalness and often the carefreeness that animates all its protagonists. Not least, this may be due to his intense involvement with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, for whom he has designed costumes and sets for nearly thirty years.7 Flowing, elegant movements fascinate Alex Katz,8 and fashion underscores this, as can be seen in the numerous close-up-portraits with large hats and the figure?hugging leotards or swimsuits. As early as 1977 Alex Katz produced a large-format painting, Round Hill, in which he portrayed his family and friends in swimwear on the beach: a composition in which he captures the everyday scene as though in a snapshot, but at the same time lending it a strident painterly rigor, dispensing with anything unnecessary. A few years later, Katz painted a four-part series of large canvases in which he again introduced women in bathing suits and bathing caps: “Eleuthera, from 1984, is at first sight even more perplexing: four canvasses of women in swimming costumes and caps, looking out at us with serene, but blank expressions like a set of 1930s fashion illustrations blown up to huge size.”9
When Alex Katz got involved with the global brand Coca-Cola, he naturally focused on two of its essential elements: the basic shade of red and the advertising made with major stars in the 1930s and 1940s. While they helped create the cult image, the stars of yesteryear have long since been ousted by the beautiful people of today, with whom people can more easily identify. Katz takes up the idea of leisure culture, ranging from sports to beach life, and transforms it into a beautiful blonde in a white leotard. Aesthetics and elegant movement merge into one again. “‘That’s Coca-Cola red, from the company’s outdoor signs in the fifties,’ Katz explained. ‘You know, the blond girl in the red convertible, laughing with unlimited happiness. It’s a romance image, and for me it has to do with Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider. I could never understand that painting, but my mother and Frank O’Hara both flipped over it, so I realized I was missing something. They saw it as a romantic figure, riding from the Black Sea to the Baltic.’“10
For Alex Katz, this notion of the romantic as well as that of the great painterly role model from the seventeenth century lives on: first visible in a beautiful profile face, the short, curly strands fall over the forehead, followed by a sequence of movement motifs, totally concentrated on the body in the white leotard. The motifs often appear as zoomed-in snapshots that focus exclusively on the center of the body in the hard crop, and pick up the white and red as a quote from the Coca-Cola logo. Particularly important here is the tension between the intense red, which dominates the picture’s background, and the restrained white, accompanied by the skin tone, which seems to increase in every subsequent motif. Finally, Katz facets his model in Coca Cola Girl 5 in a threefold refraction, each in a slightly modified pose (fig. 3). Again and again, it seems, the artist, like a photographer, explores the best possible scenery, the most interesting gesture, and the best lighting design in search of the most ideal solution. It becomes a sequence of exploration and experiment, of scenic diction that involves beholders in this process of feeling and thinking, and also imparts to them the many subcutaneous quotes: in the mind’s eye, Coca?Cola advertising past with its feeling of joie de vivre and leisure, likewise the game with image snippets popular with advertisers, as well as the deliberately planar, simplified style of painting in the Pop Art tradition; and in the process Alex Katz never tires of quoting even himself. A clever oscillation between supposed naivety and radical abstraction. “Everything in Katz—all places, all people—looks stylized, simplified, cut to please the eye, and yet none of it looks trivial. Instead, the paintings, and the collages, from the 1950s to the 2000s, exist on an edge: an edge between pop and depth; between a love for individual characters and places and an attraction to simplified repeated patterns; between a realist sense that there are people and things in the world that can be known, and a modernist attention to layers and brushstrokes, and the flatness of paint.”11 You never tire of letting your eyes wander over these rich hues, whose subtle radiance only opens up when you stand in front of them. Better still, if you have the privilege of partaking in the elaborate printing process that silkscreens require as they take shape color by color, and it becomes clear that a red is not just a red, but the sum of a complex composition of a myriad of color particles. Only these bring about the magic of color presence, which is as present as it is unreal. Behind it the subject almost disappears—the beautiful blonde in Coca-Cola red.