In Conversation

Alex Katz with Phong Bui

A day after the opening of his recent exhibit Alex Katz: Fifteen Minutes at Pace Wildenstein (through June 13, 2009), which also coincides with Alex Katz: Reflections at the Museo delle Arti di Catanzaro, Calabria, Italy (through June 13, 2009) and Alex Katz: An American Way of Seeing at the Sara Hildén Art Museum in Tampere, Finland (through May 30, 2009), the painter came to pay a visit at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation on April 25th, 2009 to talk about his life and work with Rail Publisher Phong Bui. The conversation was extended by telephone a week later.

Alex Katz, "Sunset 6" (2008). Oil on linen, 9' × 16'. Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.

Phong Bui (Rail): After one year in the Navy, you went to Cooper Union from 1946 to 1949, where you received a very well-rounded education in art. However, as you told Irving [Sandler] at that time, there were two exhibits that you saw, one of Matisse and the other of Gorky, both of which made an important and long lasting impression on you. Can you tell us about that experience?

Alex Katz, "Washington Square 1" (2008). Oil on linen, 10' 61/4" × 8'. Photo by: G.R. Christmas/courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.

Alex Katz: It was in my last year at Cooper that a teacher told me to go see the Matisse exhibit at Pierre Matisse Gallery. He said, “The man’s eighty years old but he’s very good.” And when I did I nearly fainted. I never believed anyone could paint that well. It took about three years for me to fully appreciate those Matisses. I really liked the way the paintings were composed and doing so many other things spatially all at once, yet looked so effortless. And he could do all that with thin paint and such economy, which was a big deal for me. The Gorky exhibit was at the old Whitney on 8th Street where the Studio School is now.

Rail: That must have been the Memorial Exhibit in 1951, three years after his suicide?

Katz: Right. It was pretty sensational because again, he was doing so many things plastically with such ease. I mean he was making both cubist and Miróesque kinds of paintings, though the paint was always fresh. Of course the thickly painted ones looked quite amazing because they had so much energy and presence, but it was the thinly painted ones that really stuck with me. He got another thing going for him with color and line. I should mention that the Bonnard paintings that I saw at Paul Rosenberg Gallery around 56, 57 changed everything for me because basically, up to that point, all the painters I’d looked at—Picasso, and my teachers—all painted with black lines around the forms, whereas Bonnard opened it all up. I think the Bonnard exhibit brought color into New York City for the first time, and Rothko really took it to heart.

Rail: Did you ever go and listen, like most artists in the Village at that time, to Meyer Schapiro’s lectures at the New School?

Katz: No, most of that art historical rhetoric really didn’t interest me. Besides, Schapiro was into Pollock and the whole Abstract Expressionist scene, which was so far removed from what I really wanted to do at the time.

Rail: So, the two summers you spent at Skowhegan in 49 and 50 were a life-changing situation for you because?

Katz: I started to paint outdoors and I wanted to get that immediate sensation from what I was looking at. I was more interested in the energy rather than the appearance of things. It was hellish but very rewarding at the same time.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rail: That was when drawing became less important in the painting?

Katz: Yeah, I already did a lot of drawing from the antique cast for three years in high school. Then at Cooper Union was based on drawing, and it was there that I first learned how to draw fast.

Rail: Though between 51 and 53, you painted from photographs, which was considered taboo at that time. Actually come to think of it you did it nearly two decades before photorealism had emerged. What was the impulse behind that urge to work from photographs?

Katz: Photographs had the two things I was interested in; one, they were flat, and the other, they had nostalgia. I was trying to make something new, and flatness seemed the way to go. Besides, some people said to me, “You can’t paint from photographs.” And I said, “You mean I can, but you can’t paint from photographs.” It was all ridiculous. [Laughs.]

Rail: When I look at the reproduction of the painting “Four Children,” the feeling for the simplicity of form, which suggests the potential for monumentality, and the way you invent the diagonal and horizontal lines around the figures, function like cubist structure. However, what appears to me as visual and painterly acuteness is the way you painted the space between their legs. I mean as much as it creates greater ambiguity, it also reveals both a sense of history of the layering of the paint while, at the same time, anchoring the whole image so that it doesn’t float in the picture plane. One can see that similar treatment in the painting of “Irving and Lucy,” which I’ve seen in their apartment.

Katz: The space between their legs is sort of a cubist device, which I had learned in school. I was quite aware of the fact that I not only wanted to bring the whole image to the surface, but I also wanted that space as a physical reality. That’s why it sure as hell doesn’t look like anyone else’s paintings.

Rail: Were you aware of de Kooning’s early sitting and standing figures of the late 30s? I know you became friendly with Rudy [Buckhardt] around the mid 50s, and he owned one painting that de Kooning had painted of him.

Katz: Actually, Edwin [Denby] had a lot of them in his loft, which was also Rudy’s studio. I used to go and visit them quite often and I think they must have had some influence on me at the time.

Rail: Did you have any dialogue with de Kooning?

Katz: As a person I thought de Kooning was fabulous but with his paintings, his temperament is so different from mine. He was a real macho, which I’m not. I’m pretty laid back, like neutral gray really. [Laughs.] But his idea of the figure and ground and the way he integrated them, I thought was interesting. That’s what I was involved with, yet I knew even then I had to follow my own way. There was no other option.

Rail: I remember reading an essay that Fairfield Porter wrote on your paintings [included in “Porter’s Selected Criticism 1935-1945” edited by Rackstraw Downes], which said that you had a better understanding of color and color-plus-tone than any of your peers, and that you had just as good a sensitive feeling for nature as the most ambitious Californian non-objectivists. He probably was referring to [Richard] Diebenkorn’s Berkeley series, and the Hassel Smith’s of the mid 50s. Though soon Diebenkorn shifted from abstraction to working from direct observation, which he continued to do until the mid 60s. Were you aware of that shift in his works, which were shown regularly at the Pointdexter gallery during that time?

Katz: It was a similar time with a similar place and similar solutions. Diebenkorn was influenced by David Park who initiated that change. I’m sure that he wasn’t fully satisfied with those abstract paintings. He probably thought they were too close to de Koonings. He just wanted to move to something else.

Rail: How did your relationship with Porter begin?

Katz: I met Porter in the late 50s and found him to be a really interesting guy, and we disagreed on every painter. He liked that; I liked this. I don’t think he had much use for Mondrian or Rothko, both of whom I liked. He liked de Kooning, I liked de Kooning too, but I like Pollock better. He liked Vuillard better than Bonnard. I liked Bonnard better than Vuillard. I liked Guston; he liked Motherwell.

Rail: Speaking of Guston, in the early 60s when he was doing those predominantly black and white abstract paintings, he said he would paint very close to the canvas without the need to step back and look at the painting in one sustained sitting. I wonder, since you had given yourself a time frame to execute the painting, how do you negotiate when to look while painting at a fairly hurried pace?

Katz: Well, when I started to paint directly from nature, the paintings were focused behind my head. Somehow I understood how to put paint in focus just instinctively. Also, it may relate to when I was in school working from life models. The teacher would say, “twenty minute pose”—I couldn’t do anything in twenty minutes. So I realized that I better pay attention to it. That was when I began to draw around the clock every day. I drew in subways, buses, restaurants, and bars. I just kept drawing for about two years, and I got to be able to draw pretty rapidly. But it took another six years until I was able to draw on both sides of the line. The early drawing was more descriptive, which is part of the application of imagery. And with the paint it was the same thing. At Cooper Union, Braque was considered the best painter, and he painted dry, in layers, but when I saw Pollock I thought that his paintings weren’t exactly wet on wet, but it’s much more direct painting. That was when I started doing the direct painting, I just accelerated, like what I was doing with the drawing, I did a painting a day for at least ten years. And at the end of that ten years I destroyed nearly a thousand paintings—I didn’t care because they were just about experimentation. When anyone said, “Alex is a good painter” at that point it was almost like a putdown. Anyway, the problem with painting is that it has to do with the craft, so you really have to figure out how to do it yourself. And the problem was to paint a larger painting in the same direct way. I found myself in the middle of a road painting a six foot square painting and a car came and blew the painting away. I said, “This is not going to work. I was lucky today but I might not be so lucky tomorrow.” That’s when I started to make sketches. Then when I got to the big one I could paint it in about the same time as the sketches pretty early on. The important thing was I realized that there wasn’t any large figurative painting that I thought was that interesting. I already knew the Abstract Expressionists in New York got around Paris by going big. (Matisse could have painted great big but he didn’t, and Picasso—I don’t think he was so hot on large paintings.) But as far as big paintings of the figure were concerned, no one had been there. It was problematic whether or not you could do it but since I had spent the first ten years dealing with those problems, it just worked out okay when I took a risk. And if that works, then you say, “Well, let’s go further.” As the technique got better, I was able to figure out how to deal with group compositions.

Rail: Well, each artist has to figure out a way, depending on his or her own desire to fulfill the visual appetite, how their speed of execution serves them best. Whether you look at Picasso’s “Guernica,” for example, where the changes were made directly during the painting process and remain visible.

Katz: There are two types of paintings: first, Picasso or de Kooning where you had to build it up and tear it down, and second, Barney Newman, whose paintings are about arrangements, which is what I wanted to do. But that has to be preplanned. You could also say that Matisse pre-painted. When I first saw his work I didn’t realize he did so much pre-painting. I thought, “How could anyone be that good direct?” But then I realized he had rehearsals. [Laughter.]

Rail: At any rate, much has been written about your relationship to gestural realism, which includes painters such as Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Fairfield Porter, Philip Pearlstein, and a few others, whose works focused on the relationship between image and process. And it seemed at the time, Rivers and Hartigan, for example, were more visible than Porter and Pearlstein, for that matter, partly because of their strong link to Abstract Expressionism, which was more in vogue at the time. But looking back now, what they were doing appears less radical that what you, Porter, and Pearlstein were trying in each of your own paintings.

Katz: You know, I wasn’t involved in process at all. I like to finish things; I’m very interested in leaving no trace of how it got there. Also, I don’t think any of these people were nuts about Mondrian. I was one of the few who thought Mondrian was as fabulous as Rothko.

Rail: Even de Kooning didn’t like Mondrian.

Katz: I remember I once said to de Kooning, “Mondrian is a terrific painter,” and he said, “Mondrian puts you in a jail behind those bars.” I thought he was threatened by Mondrian, partly because Mondrian was an absolutist. To me there were so many people painting under his influence, so Mondrian was no threat to me. Even though I thought that his idea of absoluteness of modern art which gave a logical view of how cubism should be concluded was completely untenable, and I didn’t want to paint like him, I still liked the way he painted.

Rail: Were you and Philip (Pearlstein) conscious of being independent from your peers?

Katz: In spite of the fact that I was working with a flat plane, while Philip as basically a revisionist with a sharp bent of space, which is what made him such an original stylist, we were going about our own business in different ways. The only difference was I came to my view of the figure in the 50s, a good decade before Philip did with his.

Rail: When did Ada come into the picture? And what was your impression when you first met her?

Katz: There were two friends of mine who were great ladies’ men. Bob Maxwell, who looked like a movie star, and Blackie Langlais, who loved all girls and women, from age 16 to 60, fat or thin. He really loved all women, and they really loved him too. They both said, “I met an interesting girl,” which meant that neither of them was able to connect with her--they meant Ada, also a friend of Tom Boutis, whom I was having a two-man collage exhibit with at Tanager Gallery. Anyway I thought to myself, “well, if those guys couldn’t connect with her, I most likely can,” partly because I couldn’t connect with their girlfriends. And that was how I met Ada in 1957, and it was an instant connection. She just had a great smile.

Alex Katz, “Purple Wind” (1995). 126˝ × 96˝. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of the artist.

Rail: Is there a particular feature in her look that inspires you to paint her over 200 times?

Katz: She’s basically an American beauty. Ada for me is like Dora Maar to Picasso. But Ada has better shoulders, and could easily be Miss America. I was interested in Miss America because it’s an icon in popular culture, so she just fits right in.

Rail: So you got lucky? (Laughs.)

Katz: Totally lucky. Believe me, I would have settled for much less.

Rail: In regard to the big scale of your painting, which you refer it as “visual dominance,” when and how did it come about?

Katz: For a good four years from 1954-1960, I was doing a lot of small collages of still-lifes, Maine landscapes and small figures, which were no more than twelve inches. Once I was able to figure out how to make small things that look big, which is what scale is about, I would do the same with the big paintings.

Rail: When I look at Rudy’s photographs, particularly his series of pedestrians walking on sidewalks, which he cropped the upperparts of the figure off, what we see are their feet walking. It makes me think of the way you crop your images.

Katz: Rudy’s photographs are terrific because you see what’s all around you. There is a lot of movement, yet there’s no congestion. Rudy also did a similar thing with his films where he would just put the camera on a window and leave it there, filming whatever was in front of it for a while and then put it someplace else. I think he’s a fantastic artist.

Rail: I also have in mind your painting of Ada’s feet with “Black Sandals” (1987) in the same way!

Katz: Oh yeah! Like something Rudy did thirty something years ago, which I never thought of. But more specifically, my idea of cropped came from watching films, the way in which big faces would take up one third of the screen. I also wanted more muscle in the painting. I’d seen the de Kooning show in the late 50s and his paintings were really muscular and I thought they were great paintings but I wanted to knock them off the wall. So I wanted to be bigger and tougher. The big heads were the vehicle for making real muscular pictures.

Rail: Similar to Irving’s idea of an on-spot history, you have your own on-the-spot improvisations. Of course in reference to your particular process of painting, wet-on-wet, which requires what Van Gogh wrote in his letter to Theo, about Manet’s “Last Flower” paintings, “simplicity of techniques.”

Katz: What’s so fabulous about the technique of wet-on-wet is that you really have to be very skilled to lay the paint on without having it drag through like the way Manet does it. Your touch has to be perfect.

Rail: And the paint cannot be too thickly applied, and for any kind of revision in the process of painting, you have to adjust your idea immediately, otherwise, as you once said before, your conscious brain is constricted to your previous experience.

Katz: Yeah, your sensibility has to be right on it. Many painters do it differently—Van Gogh, for example, put it on like plaster—but the way I do it is I really dig into the paint below, so as I’m pulling it out, the color is changing. It gets crazier when you try to pull with a big brush as wide as half-a-foot and a gesture is 9 feet long. It may have started as black, but then it turns into grays, so you really have to know what the hell you’re doing. For example, I did these windows, where I would take an eight-inch brush in just one stroke, so the stuff underneath has to be right, the brush has to be loaded right, before I make the touch. And then you have to look at it and say, “Well does it look good, or doesn’t it look good?” That’s where you’re really living on the minute.

Rail: You mean the series of night paintings like “Purple Wind” (1995), “January 7 P.M.” (1997) and “Street Lights” (2005)?

Katz: Yeah. Essentially what I really wanted was not only to get the space to be convincing, but the light has to be right on target.

Rail: And all of those things have to be executed simultaneously. Unlike the kind of action that is so identifiable in Abstract Expressionist painting, which entails the different layers in the case of Pollock’s drip paintings, scraping and repainting in the case of de Kooning, you sort of invented your own kind of action painting, in a way.

Katz: I suppose so. It’s not like the idea of painting wet-on-wet was just invented yesterday. I just don’t think many people have ever done it on a twenty-foot painting.

Rail: There’s a whole other issue, how the edges are painted!

Katz: You can’t worry about it too much. You just hope that your rhythms are going to give you a variety of edges, you’re not thinking about edges being this way or that way. Because if every edge is perfect, the whole painting would be extremely monotonous and boring. You really have to rely on your inner natural rhythms, like a child, to give you a variety of edges, and hope for the best.

Alex Katz, “Black Scarf” (1995). Oil on linen, 72 × 48 inches. Sam Rose and Julie Walters, Partial and Promised. Gift to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Courtesy of the artist.

Rail: In Rob [Storr’s] interview, you were both talking about your own take of style in reference to de Kooning’s remark that he didn’t want to sit “in style.” You thought de Kooning meant stylized, in which case he would be considered a failure.

Katz: Well, stylized painting is like a signature for identification. It’s a short-cut affectation. That’s what de Kooning’s objection was about. But as far as style goes de Kooning had a lot of style. You can always recognize a de Kooning anywhere, even from miles away.

Rail: But I’m particularly interested in the whole evolution of how a painter arrives at his or her own maturity. Let’s say, a great stylist such as yourself, looking back on your whole career, in spite of its identifiable continuity and its visual coherence and so on, there appears to be a different complex set that you have to deal with in each of those stages. My question is: Do you think without going through some struggles in the formative years like you did, it would be difficult for a young painter to sustain the necessary amount of growth? I think when de Kooning said, “To force a style beforehand is merely an apology of one’s own anxiety,” he meant that once a young painter arrives at his or her style so prematurely, where would they go from there?

Katz: That de Kooning quote is not clearly expressed, and people use it mostly because it sounds good. I just think different painters evolve differently. Someone like [James] Ensor was fantastic at 19, but he was fantastic all the way through, he never got better. Some others make their technique better, and some don’t give a damn. It’s really complicated, why a painter stops short while another keeps moving on. And I think the former has to do with not being happy.

Alex Katz, "Ada's Black Sandals" (1987). 48 × 60 inches. Colby College Museum of Art, Gift of the artist. Courtesy of the artist.

Rail: [Laughter] I never thought of that.

Katz: Yeah, it’s that simple.

Rail: Baudelaire’s description of a dandy is an individual who is regarded as a sharp observer of contemporary society, particularly attuned to what is considered contemporary. Any one can look at the clothing in your painting, and they can tell what time period it was painted in. As Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion comes and goes, but style stays.” How were you able to keep up with the social changes by the appearances of things while maintaining your paintings afresh?

Katz: I think you have to be adaptable to your surroundings. It’s a way to step outside of yourself, which can be very generative. Whatever I do in my paintings has to do with a good deal of my time looking at everything everyday. I look at a lot of other artists’ works—young and old. I even like looking at bad art because it can be more interesting than boring art. Maybe spending every summer in Maine with Ada, where I paint from nature, gives me fresh insight when I come back to the city. It’s a perfect balance for me. The bottom line about the way I think of style is that it has sustaining power.

Rail: What was your observation of the decade of the 80s, which gave full permission to figurative painting and opened up so many other possibilities for younger artists ever since?

Katz: I think in the 80s the idea of avant-garde modernism, which in some ways linked the promotion of absolutism, communism, and fascism, all finally collapsed. So a new space was created. Everything was open. Most of the young painters then had not studied modern art.

Rail: So you think that served them as an advantage?

Katz: Yes, a stylistic advantage. Just as much as I was able to go against the Abstract Expressionists’ idea of subject matter becomes the content and the content becomes the form, I created my own style to be the content of the painting. Young painters are not stuck trying to make planes move. They’re not stuck with modern art formalism. There’s no baggage. They can just go right into figuration…Ultimately it all boils down to this criterion: “Are the paintings interesting enough for you to want to walk into the gallery and look at them?”

Rail: Could you talk more about this recent group of paintings?

Katz: They’re all painted in 15-minute intervals, which is the amount of time it takes for the sun to go down. So you can either put some lights on while you’re painting, and then you can’t see properly, or keep the lights off and then you can’t see your painting as you finish. The real sunsets were done with no lights, so I ended up painting in the dark. And then the next day you look at it and make another painting from that, you’re making the changes, depending on what you think.

Rail: So the studies for those big paintings, they didn’t get painted in the interval of fifteen minutes, but they were painted in succession on the same day?

Katz: They were painted on different days, and all in that fifteen-minute interval.

Rail: How many sessions?

Katz: I made three or five of them on different days. Three of them looked interesting. Then I would paint a little painting from the little paintings. From there I would paint at 4 × 6 feet, and if it looked right, I would move up to 5 × 7 feet. And if I felt I had it, I then go right up to the big ones.

Rail: What about those cityscapes?

Katz: They were painted in that same 15-minute interval at Washington Square Park. I made a lot of small paintings, and then brought them back to the studio for possible increases in size. I also came back to the site and made a fairly accurate drawing as something to look at for details for the big painting. But the initial sensation was always more interesting in the small painting than in the drawing.

Rail: How do you retain that initial sensation and make it fresh in the big painting?

Katz: I just hope that, since I’ve done it many times before, my instinct would be good enough to make it live.

Rail: In some sense, as much as you never liked the idea of anxiety, there has to be a bit of that in trying to transform a small, fresh painting into a big one?

Katz: Oh yeah, most of the time when I’m halfway through the big one, I often think maybe I should have left it alone in the small paintings. It’s a total nightmare.

Rail: So to go back to what we spoke of earlier, about painters who, based on their being not happy with what they do, were unable to keep moving on in their work, how happy are you as a painter?

Katz: I’m not happy. I suffer. [Laughter.]

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Phong Bui