My Favourite Painting: Nick Ashley

Nick Ashley chooses Samantha by Alex Katz, an artist who made his name in New York's art scene of the 1980s.

Nick Ashley in his choice of Samantha by Alex Katz

‘I love this portrait of Samantha McEwen, an Abstract painter. Apart from the obvious visuals, this painting is enhanced by the subject herself — a plucky young Londoner who went to New York in the 1980s and became one of the best artists to emerge from the city.

‘Alex Katz was then a hard-working, but undiscovered painter. Together, they made a techno-retro masterpiece, when others such as Jean Michel Basquiat were playing around with spray cans.

‘The composition, lighting, paint application and so on is very classically formal, but the styling (the hair, the T-shirt) is very photographic, bringing the whole thing into modern times — not to mention the quiet optimism, perfectly captured.’

Nick Ashley is a menswear designer and the former creative director of his family’s business, Laura Ashley. Brora x Nick, Lily & Edie Ashley — a clothing collaboration between Brora and the Ashley family — is out now.

Charlotte Mullins on Alex Katz and Samantha

The nonagenarian painter Alex Katz doesn’t hold with nostalgia or tradition. ‘Reality is subject to fashion,’ he says, ‘and so you get something where there’s no past tense, there’s no future tense, there’s only now. I want to paint the now.’

In a career spanning nearly eight decades, he has sought to do exactly that, to strip out the context in landscapes, still lifes and portraits. Since his student days at Cooper Union in New York in the 1940s, he has wrestled with figurative representation, despite being surrounded by Abstract Expressionism and the physical urgency of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s paintings. However, going against the grain paid off and he has since had more than 250 solo exhibitions across Europe and America.

This painting is one of several works based on the same woman (Samantha McEwen), completed in the 1980s. In this version, her dark hair is tousled and she stands against a flat gold background wearing a simple white T-shirt and black V-neck. A small coin earring dangles from her left ear. Her pale-blue eyes seem watery, as if she is on the brink of crying, but Mr Katz gives nothing away to suggest why. For, although we can read Mr Katz’s paintings as representational, what interests him most is the abstract language of painting: light, flatness, surface. As he says: ‘For me, the surface is where the whole thing is.’