In this extensive interview excerpted from the revised and expanded edition of Phaidon’s monograph Alex Katz, the New York-based painter sits down with his longtime friend Robert Storr, the now-outgoing dean of the Yale School of Art, for a lively, winding discussion about the artist’s influences, concerns, and life history. All works featured are available for purchase on Artspace.
Robert Storr: What was your relationship to the kind of painting that was being done when you entered the scene in the 1950s—to use Greenberg’s term, “American-type painting,” by which he meant a certain kind of reach, a certain scale? How much of what you were doing was a reply to that?
Alex Katz: It was about knocking out the bouncer, that’s what it was! There’s a guy I know who used to go dancing at the Palladium. When he’d had a bad night, he’d say, “Well, I tried to take out the bouncer.” [laughs]
You once said that a jerk is somebody who competes with the wrong guy. [laughs]
Those Klines and de Koonings had so much big energy; I wanted to make something that knocked them off the wall. Just like that—more muscle, more energy. They set the standard. It wasn’t the style I wanted to follow, but I wanted to paint up to their standards. So I took a figurative work and I said, “Well, I want a figurative painting on the scale of the Abstract Expressionists,” you know, on a big scale.
No one had been there, so it was really exciting. I had a painting in my first show at Marlborough (New York) in 1973, which was a group exhibition with Franz Kline, and Clyfford Still, and others. I put a flower painting in from the late 1960s and I was really scared that it was going to look like a piece of crap there. But it didn’t. It held up.
Earlier you also saw that Beauford Delaney (who made high-impact paintings) was someone to compete with, even though he wasn’t particularly well known.
Just out of art school, someone asked me to put a painting in a show, a cityscape from 1948 or 1949. I got a nice review in the Times for it, and I said, “Well, the real world’s going to be as easy as art school!” The next time—a couple of years late—that I put a painting in a show, it was a small, delicate still life (Ivy, 1950). We got to the gallery and there was a Beauford Delaney. He just wiped that gallery out! My painting looked like an old dishrag. I laughed. I thought it was really funny, because I had this painting I thought was real good and it looked like a dishrag! I decided this was never going to happen again. And that was the start of it. That was the beginning of my lesson. I said, no one’s going to knock me off the wall. Period. You’re competing with everybody else in a way—guys like Mark Rothko, who’s a terrific painter.
I like to make a painting that you can stick anywhere; that is the idea. The Times Square commission (Times Square Mural, 1977) was where I did it. Finally I stuck a work in the middle of Times Square and it held up. It doesn’t make it a better painting necessarily than a Rothko. It’s a different idea.
You’re talking about the set of heads on billboards that were on the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue in 1977.
Yes, and it went around the corner, like a marquee. It was amazing. It was two hundred and fifty feet long and sixty feet high. One day I saw a Guston next to a Rothko and the Guston chewed the Rothko up—and Rothko is the better painter. I thought, “I’d like to make a painting they could put up in Times Square and would hold up next to billboards.” Then I was offered this opportunity to do it. No one was using the billboard, so when one of these city groups came around and offered it to me, I tried to act cool: “Oh, yes, that sounds interesting....” [laughs] We got it up there and some guy came in from an airplane from Texas, and said, “I saw this billboard from the plane. I wondered what my ex-wife was doing in Times Square.” [laughs]
So, it carried?
It knocked out the billboards, and I felt great. The fact that it was there gave me more pleasure than if it were in some museum someplace. Anyway, it was one of the big kicks of my life.
Do you see your art as a bid for a certain dominance?
Yes, yes, that’s what it’s about. I’m trying to fight with the movies! [laughs] Movies in the 1930s and 1940s took the place of the church in their powerful influence on the way people dressed, the way they stuck their hands in their pockets. Everything came out of the movies—the good and the bad. You just start seeing things that way. That, to me, is where the marbles are: not in invention, but in visual dominance. The dominance is in the vision.
They’ve upped the ante. Now, it’s neon and TV in Times Square. That’s also what’s happened in museums. A lot of what you see now in contemporary art is, in fact, alternative media of one kind or another.
It’s an expanded field. In the 1950s they used to say there are a hundred interesting artists. It changes a little bit every year. Now, it’s about the same number of painters, except most of them are not in New York. But there are a lot more artists. You can become an artist at art school in video or more conceptual things; it’s mostly to do with ideas—you don’t have to fool around with craft. It expanded the field. There are a lot of artists around, real artists, but with painters it generally takes about six or seven years before they get the craft down.
What do you think painting needs to do in order to hold its own, both spatially and institutionally, with video installations?
I think painting ought to be shown separately from photography and video, in a contemplative space. I think showing it in a food show....
A food show?
You know, a food show—you just walk by taking samples. I think that’s a bad atmosphere for painting. Paintings are a different thing, perceived in a different time and space, and I think they should be separate.
And the museums of modern art should be structured so that there’s a place where painting can live by its own rules?
By itself. You can have video living by its own rules too. And photography should live by its own rules. I don’t think they should be mixed. I mean, I live in the world of photos and movies. They’re part of our culture. I just think they’re different, that’s all.
When you came onto the scene in New York in the 1950s, there was considerable emphasis on the performance aspects of painting. There was the whole myth that Pollock was a catharsis-driven Action Painter, which was in part propagated by Hans Namuth’s movies of him at work. In your work a great deal happens on the surface, but you’re not interested in “venting on the canvas.”
How do you relate your work to the culture of painting when you first started?
At art school I started painting “modern art.” The techniques were dry. It was a lot of drawing, and then you put a drawing on the canvas and you put paint on that, and you worked on the paint. Braque was considered the best painter of that type; then there was Pollock at the other extreme. After art school
I dove into the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art right away, like the last hot student from that school. When I saw Pollock’s work, I dumped the
old style and I started plein air painting. I just said, “Well, that was art school and I’m not doing it anymore.”
With the plein air paintings I found that I was painting from the back of my head—things were coming out much faster. That was the first stage; it was also the beginning of learning how to paint directly, without using a photo/model or making studies. I kept doing these over and over again, and eventually, in four or five years, I developed a fairly good painting technique. But when I wanted to go larger, I just couldn’t do it in the same open way. I started to paint more indirectly in the mid-1960s.
The way in which I’d been working the canvas out was like de Kooning or Picasso or Cézanne. You build it and you tear it down, and you build it again. But I’m not suited temperamentally to that. The other type of painting is arrangement, like Barney Newman or Monet. Those seem to be the two poles.
When I wanted to do the figure compositions like Paul Taylor Dance Company (1963–64) they had to be predetermined. It’s an entirely different way of painting. I was taking the open painting, which I got from painting outdoors “with no brain,” so to speak, and working it into a way of doing more complicated paintings. Basically, I’ve always been going for places where no one’s been before. You want to go there and see whether it’s possible, and adjust the technique to your ideas.
With Pollock and others the speed of execution seemed to be visible on the surface, though in Namuth’s film Pollock doesn’t move all that fast. Then there was Pop art, which was about speed of apprehension. You seem to be in neither camp. You must have thought about your distance from both, given that those things were going on around you.
I felt very uncomfortable with Action Painting—its broad, philosophic generalities.
How so, particularly?
The idea of truth. I was very skeptical about “truth” even when I was young—of it being a constant. I was also skeptical about utopian vision.
Which is classic modernism.
Yes, modernism and “progress.” For me, everything has more to do with instinct than intellect. If things didn’t feel right, I couldn’t do it. It was like lying, so I went another way. With Pop art, it was simple. I was in it early. Then these guys come and they’re making it into signs, while I’m interested in symbols and perceptual information.
What do you mean by “symbols?”
A sign is like a stop sign, which says “Stop,” and nothing else. When you see a head, like in Red Coat (1982), it refers to many different things, a particular person, a beautiful woman, a stylish woman. Your mind keeps wandering on it. When I painted myself with a hat on and a suit and a tie in the early 1960s (Passing, 1962–63), I was thinking about the Dutch guy. I used to look at those Rembrandts and say,
"Gee, those were some weird outfits; they’re so awful looking!”
I finally realized that the man in the grey flannel suit with the hat in my work is within the same bourgeois society that Rembrandt was painting and it was up-to-date, but it referred back to other things. That’s a symbol. A symbol moves. Symbols are much more variable than signs. Signs are just “blue sky,” “green grass”—and Pop art was a little like that. I was interested in a more complicated kind of thing. I was also interested in fancy painting. [laughs]
By which you mean?
The painting performance is something I got interested in. Pollock was pretty good, but when I really got how well Picasso could paint once he got to Girl Before a Mirror (1932).... Actually you don’t get
a big technique until you’re around 35 or 40, usually, if you’re any good. Picasso’s early paintings were technically, for me, pretty wobbly. Even his great Cubist paintings don’t have a big technique. When he gets into his fifties—when he does Girl Before a Mirror—that’s a big technique. For me, it was just awesome, and that’s what I wanted to do.
Matisse has a big technique. It took me three or four years to learn how to appreciate paintings. I was in art school, and the teacher said, “Take a look at Matisse.” Well, I fainted; I couldn’t believe anyone could paint that well! That was a big technique.
So, that’s what my mind was set on—that and the small technique things. They function in terms of invention and they function in terms of fashion and style. There are some terrific Pop paintings, but I had my eye set on something else.
And that was?
Big technique painting.
What does that mean?
What I said. A real big technique!
Basically, you’re talking about taking full possession of the style and pushing it right out in front, saying, “Here it is?”
Yes, a really big style painting. As far as I was concerned, I like the style to be the content. The style is cut in with the painting. Painting without style is just a craft.
De Kooning famously remarked in the 1950s that he didn’t want to “sit in style.”
That’s total baloney! I mean, it’s embarrassing! He said, “I don’t want to paint any style” and all his paintings look alike! That’s the dumbest thing this brilliant man ever said.
Okay, granted. But it expresses a certain wish to...
I know what he meant. He didn’t want to paint a stylized picture, where the artist changes subject matter and keeps the same style. “Stylized” is what he really meant. And stylized is a total failure. A stylized painting is in a coffin, really. It’s in bad taste. It’s bad art.
A lot is made of the Americanness of painting on this vast scale. Did you see this as a cultural or national issue at all?
No. I thought it was like going back to the Venetians, like going back to European painting. That’s what I was looking at. When I saw the scale of the Abstract Expressionists, I thought it was a continuation of that large-scale European painting. They call my work very American, but I can’t see it. I’m just trying to see the world I live in, not the world that someone else lived in, to get into the present tense, and see where I am.
Most big paintings of that time were of gods and goddesses, or religious themes, or battle scenes or whatever. You’re painting on what would have been called a “heroic scale,” but the subject matter is not heroic.
As I’ve said before, I don’t do crucifixions! I have a very jaundiced view of subject-matter artists—whether the painting is good is all predicated on the acceptance of the subject matter. My work is quite the opposite: the subject matter is just about nothing. You have to see it as a painting or an image. And the heroic thing I’ve always thought of as a big joke. I never could take that part seriously.
When you look at Old Master paintings—where the gesture is a big gesture, where the scale is a big scale—do you just see it without its subject matter, and look only at it as a painted object?
Yes, for me it’s a painted object. I get an emotional response from the way it’s painted. I just can’t take subject matter seriously.
But what if you look at Titian or Tintoretto or Veronese?
I don’t even see the subject matter; I just look at the painting. There was a Masaccio painting that knocked me out when I first saw it. I remember some fantastic greys, blues, and reds, and flesh color. Thirty years later someone told me it was an upside-down crucifixion. I didn’t even see that. It’s a very good painting; it just knocked me dead. It was mostly the color. I don’t usually respond to narrative paintings very well.
So what’s the subject matter of your paintings? I mean, your landscapes, your people?
It’s an optical thing. The late landscapes were all trying to make an optical sensation from something you see. I’m working on something that painters
have never done before. I’m trying to see something and make other people see what I saw. That’s it. And the portraits go into a social thing, too, because I’m painting the society in which I live. So it has that social identification, but it’s also pretty optical. I’m just trying to paint what I’m looking at.
Well, it’s partly the social thing I want to get at. In the so-called postmodern age, the tendency is to read pictures as much as to look at them. People nowadays look at your pictures and scrutinize them very closely for the texts or subtexts they contain.
How do you think people perceive your work? For example, if I say to you, “These are pictures of extraordinary well-being, pictures of a middle-class life, and the apogee of American power, and prosperity,” that’s not to reduce them to that, but is it something you think about while you’re painting?
No, not when I’m painting. I’m just trying
to think about getting the paint on the canvas. That’s enough for me to think about: whether the paint’s going on right or not. Or just trying to get it to look right. I don’t think about anything else. Painters construct layers. To me, if the subject matter’s on top, it’s a very uninteresting picture. With a complicated picture you have layers, and my pictures are fairly complicated.
So when you look at Edwin and Rudy (1968), all of a sudden you see that one of the men is older than the other. Then if you keep looking, you find out everything about the person. It’s all there. But it’s not the first thing you see in the painting. There is a lot of human content in the pictures, and I do think that all my paintings are done from a certain social standpoint. Some people are poor, some are rich, some are old, some are young—but that’s not the prime issue. That’s what I don’t like about Rembrandts: they tell you too much about the person, rather than showing you the person.
I read an interview where you come down pretty hard on Rembrandt.
The thing about Rembrandt is, he puts the message in front of the painting sometimes. The tragic man is hard for me to take. The technique is fantastic, but the narrative line, on a lot of his things, seems a little gross. Think of Giotto: Giotto can do a crucifixion and show people with intimate feelings; it’s never gross. It’s dynamite, right on the money. He’s a great narrative artist. I don’t think Rembrandt is a great narrative artist.
But there’s more to Dutch painting than Rembrandt. If Hals paints a ruffle or a cuff or the pleats in a jacket, there’s a series of marks, but within that, an amazing amount of invention takes place.
Yes. Hals’s big paintings in Holland are fantastic. But Rembrandt does skin better than Hals, hair better than Hals, velvet better. He can do all the local surfaces and get a nice look of light better than Hals. Hals’s brushwork is terrific; I like those big paintings of his better than Rembrandt’s big paintings, but, all in all, he was just technically not in Rembrandt’s league. I like Goya’s portraits of men. I think they’re fantastic. They reveal themselves much more slowly than official portraits that give you the guy’s social position and everything.
The obvious connection here is Baudelaire’s idea of the “painter of modern life.”
Manet was one of the first painters to put all the technique on the surface and to push the subject matter back. He painted for the sake of the opportunity to paint those things. But you look at Manet’s paintings now and they give you the best view of a certain nineteenth-century reality that we have. In a sense you are in the same territory. How open are you to people analyzing the paintings in those terms?
I think a painting is up for grabs once you paint it. Anyone has a right to say whatever they do.
In a sense they explain the painting to me. People say things that I never thought about. I just paint, and I’m thinking about things, but I don’t know what the painting’s going to communicate. When you work on a painting you can’t possibly know what the hell you’re doing, right? When you finish it, people tell you.
And then when you start again, how much of what they told you carries over?
A lot, definitely. People give you points of stability, because it’s really unstable when you’re out there, floating away on a twenty-three-foot painting, just splashing. When someone says something, you listen very carefully and that gives you a fixed point to which you can anchor, and then you move on to other points that are equally insecure.
If you have a little painting, where your hands are moving quickly and the surface is contained within your field of vision, that’s one thing. But when you’re dealing with a big surface, you’re up close to it, and you lose that sense of relative distance. How does that affect the way you work?
I’ve always been able to paint from “behind me.” I found out in art school that I could paint close to the work and the focus would be 20 feet behind me. I was really shocked when I first found that I was able to do that. I have a fairly good feeling about the way things focus. It feels right when I’m doing it; I know it’s going to focus. It’s all very instinctive when you’re painting. It’s just like floating and hoping that it’ll come out OK.
How do you set up a session like that? It must be like playing a piece of music.
It’s actually a performance. And you can work up to it for a week, like a performance. There’s often a smaller version of the painting in front of me when I’m working on the big one. I know every brush for every stroke, the colors are all mixed in big pots, and there’s an indication of the armature. So then it’s a matter of a technical performance. And I’ve been painting long enough to get it right—although you never know what the paint’s going to do when it hits the canvas. But you have the energy all built up. That’s the big thing—to have the energy.
Are you like an actor who has to have a quiet day before the performance?
Yes. I’m not going to paint two portraits the day before I do one of those.
You just sort of let the energies pool?
I pool them for a whole week or so.
And the actual performance of a picture like that, a very large one, is a matter of what, one or two sessions?
No, that big painting, Song (2003), was done in a five-hour period.
Yes. I can paint!
Well, I know! [laughs]
Putting the yellow on took about half an hour or so, and the painting was finished in five hours.
I said, “It’s got to be inside six hours.” I knew that before I started. It’s like a piano performance that’s supposed to be 23 minutes; if it goes to 35, it isn’t so good. That painting was the perfect performance. And when Ada [Katz, Alex Katz’ wife] came in and said it looked good, I knew she wasn’t kidding. So if it looked good to her, it meant it must be a pretty good painting. Everyone who saw it seemed
to like it. But I had trouble reconciling myself to the painting because it was so different from anything that I’ve done before.
Can you characterize the kind of energy that you experience when you’re making this sort of work? The myths surrounding certain kinds of energized painting are all about frenzy, cathartic energy. What kind of energy is this?
It’s kind of a control, but it’s open at the same time. If you take a brush and try to do the top of a mouth or the inside of an eye or something like that, you have to really focus on it; you have to have a rhythm in your strokes. But it’s more open than that. And sometimes I’ll say, “We need 10 per cent more.”
Ten percent more what?
Ten per cent more color, or 10 percent more definition. I was painting sort of in planes, giving it some meat at the end, getting it away from being too illusionistic. I wanted it a little more concrete. Some paintings, you just feel your way through, and some you think your way through.
In this process that’s developed, is it essentially putting layer upon layer upon layer?
Yes, it’s layered painting.
Do you use cancellations of any kind, or bury anything?
Not much, no. It’s built up. If it botches, I just wipe it and build it up again.
So you don’t come in with a color and crop something that’s already there?
No, not much. The colors are on top of colors, but you sort of build it up until it’s finished. Well, it’s supposed to be finished, but I’ve gone back into pictures from 20 years ago and sometimes there’s an area that I keep wondering about. There was The Ryan Sisters (1981). The sky was green, and 20 years later I made it blue.
And you were right?
I don’t know. I think it’s a little better.
What about more complicated things, like general body language. I mean, to take the portrait of two men, Edwin and Rudy (1968) where they touch and where they don’t touch, how they don’t quite make eye contact—all of this becomes a remarkably complicated relationship done in a very understated way.
I set up the situation for it. It’s their gestures; I just let them sit and they sat and I painted. But they made it. Anything they do is much better than something I contrive. Generally when you paint people they should be moving, and they usually go into gestures that suit them.
What about the “black paintings” like Ada’s Garden (2000), in which you have many figures with congested spaces between them? Do you see scenarios developing? Does the body language turn into some kind of narrative? Or is that more of a formal arrangement for you?
It’s a formal arrangement. I was doing something in the “black paintings” that I hadn’t done before, with that much space between the people. It seemed more appropriate to the time we’re living in than before, in works like Cocktail Party (1965), where people were closer together. The gestures came from the people, but I chose them and pushed them around a little bit.
What I have flashing at the back of my mind is somebody like Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, for example, who painted very large figure compositions in frieze formats with muted colors and flat areas. Most of those pictures are incredibly stagey.
They are very stagey, yes.
And your pictures sort of hover in a very interesting space between something totally controlled—a tableau—and casual gestures, details of gestures, little intimations of what goes on between people.
Chavannes’ gestures come out of what he knows, and my gestures come out of what I find. I set up the situation but people make the gestures, and then I have to deal with them, whereas Chavannes’s, I think, is more of a contrived situation.
Do you think like a stage director, blocking action but letting the actors improvise the details?
Yes... yes, that’s exactly what it is. Because I know what I want. For example, in Ada’s Garden I wanted a night painting and I did a couple of Ada with windows and then I took out the window and it got interesting, with all black. I was just scaling in the color. I kept doing four-by-six-foot paintings until
I got some colors I liked. I finally got the color and the light right, and I did a lot of shooting with the camera and I had the people pose differently. It’s a very indirect way of getting at it.
How much do you actually use photography? Mostly what I’ve seen of your preparatory studies are drawings.
I used photography in that one for the gestures. For the last three or four summers I’ve been doing these beach paintings (the "Harbor" series, 1999; Penobscot Morning, 2002; Walking on the Beach, 2002); the gestures come from photography, but then I have to make the paintings in plein air to get the colors right. From photography I can’t get any colors and I can’t get the light I’m interested in. I want to go into areas where no one’s been in terms of time: at twilight, you get 10 or 15 minutes. Dawn (1995) was done in no time. The time frame I had to do that painting with the snow (Winter Scene, 2004) was just a blink. It’s really quick stuff. Otherwise you’re painting from memory and I’ve never trusted my memory.
To my eye, in the early paintings there’s a lot of movement of the paint on the surface and there’s a lot of give where edges and colors meet. The drawing aspect is very intensely considered all the way through. Do you think there’s been a change in that relationship, at least in the recent landscapes?
The small, early landscapes of the 1950s were all open. I just threw drawing out of the window. My training is drawing. For three years I was drawing antiques and casts. I drew sketchbook stuff for two years intensively. So I come from a drawing background, but to get it to something live, I just discounted my whole background and painted openly.
This enormous painting you’re working on in the other room, with the yellow ground (Song, 2003): the drawing is almost completely dissolved into mark marking. To what extent is a painting like that really plotted out in the way the earlier ones were? Or is something changing in the way you work now?
I wanted to make a painting that didn’t have any structural patterns and was really “all over.” There is a frame or structure underneath it, but it’s very minimal. The paintings I did about four or five years ago (May, 1996; Autumn, 1999), had real armatures, but this one I wanted to make open. I needed to lock the paint into the yellow ground. The problem was between the specific leaves and the generalized shapes of the marks. If it had too many leaves it would just look awful, like something from 1950.
What do you mean by that?
Well, like a generalized, semi-abstract painting. Something vaguely....
But, for example, in Blue and Yellow (2001) and in some of your other recent paintings, the amount of openness with the brushwork of the small details like leaves and so forth seems to have really changed qualitatively in some way. There’s no silhouette, there’s no edge, necessarily, that conceptually or actually pre-exists.
I think the early landscapes from the 1950s and early 1960s were all more gestural, and I seem to want to go that way again. It’s a different way of painting. I’m relying much more on instinct, and basically the idea was to take the little paintings such as Winter Scene (1951–52), which were all done that way, and put them on a large scale.
What’s the importance of virtuosity in your work?
For me the image is the most important thing. I’m an image-maker, and I think my paintings are visionary images: you can see things through the image. The technique of painting makes it more palatable, or more acceptable. A good technique holds it all together, makes it more fluid, and more believable, but it shouldn’t get in your way. A good technique is supposed to support a painting; it isn’t supposed to be in front of it, right? Also, my big audience is painters, basically. And one of the things I enjoy is, “Eat your heart out! Check this out and eat your heart out!”
In that regard, who do you see as the peers who matter to you?
And if you step back from just the technical issue, as an image-maker, who do you think is out there now making indelible images?
Francesco Clemente can make an image that’s really big time. I like Jasper Johns for trying, you know? I think David Salle has done stuff that’s interesting. His paintings are arresting for me to look at and they have lots of energy. Enzo Cucchi is a good painter too. I don’t know what he’s doing now but I thought he handled a big surface well; he’s technically very good. He paints very well and he makes pretty strong images; he’s a very intelligent artist.
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your relationship with other generations of artists, younger than you, and older than you, when you were young? You were very good friends with Franz Kline, as I understand it?
No, we spoke together; I wouldn’t call it “good friends.” He was real open and very generous. But I was always too conceited. I liked Bill de Kooning, who was very friendly to me, an absolutely great human being. And Philip Guston was really nice to me. He was just really great. We could talk like social equals about this and that. In my own time, I had a lot in common with Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter, but also with Al Held and Philip Pearlstein. We were very argumentative for years. I related better socially to Clemente and Salle than to anyone of my own generation.
What was the point of contact?
With David it’s always about theater. We have a thing about theater. I think David’s space is interesting. He took the flat painting and made it into a plastic painting quite successfully. The subject matter got in the way of the painting and all that, but basically David was visionary. Francesco asked me about American poets so we had that in common.
There are basically two other art forms that have had your attention all the way along: dance and poetry. In the 1960s you painted ensemble dancers, the Paul Taylor Company, and so on.
A lot of it belongs to the tradition of gestures. I get a lot from looking at dance.
One of the things about American dance is that it brought in a lot of the postures and gestures of everyday life—somewhat in the way that American poetry did with language. There’s a kind of common speech in American poetry and there’s a common deportment in American dance. Is that something you picked up on?
That’s part of it. The vernacular interests me: speaking with your own voice and not trying to speak with that kind of Henry James voice that seems like another time, another place. I can feel something is right when it belongs to me, when I’m painting or when I’m writing, and if it’s not I can feel its affectedness.
You read and re-read a lot of poetry. Could you talk a bit about your relation both to poetry and to individual poets? You’ve painted poets a lot.
Yes. The poets were more interesting to me in the 1960s than the painters; they were dealing with their life as they were living it. It’s marvelous to see something fresh that belongs to the time you live in. And I felt empathy with the poets regarding the idea of an art form. It wasn’t something that was institutionalized.
What’s your relation to the institutions of art, to museums, to the academy?
It hasn’t been so hot, for the most part.
Did you keep a distance from them?
No—they kept a distance from me! I was never really heavily embraced. The Whitney paid attention, but overall I think institutions were not enthralled.
Why do you think that is?
I think the work was too new. I mean, when I showed those little paintings from the 1950s like Winter Scene, no one looked twice at them. And when I showed them at Robert Miller Gallery in the 1980s, Hilton Kramer came out and said, “Well, we didn’t understand them then.” That’s a lot for a guy to say. I think the paintings were really misunderstood. They look different now to people.
One of the things that strikes me is that your work isn’t something that you can extend into a theory about how somebody should make the next painting, or how these paintings inevitably came from work preceding them.
I think the big thing is that they don’t give anyone any stability. You can’t rely on the subject matter. They move around a lot. They’re basically a little unstable for an institution.
What about the pleasure factor, that people underestimate them because they provide pleasure, without stinginess?
That’s the thing about subject matter. How can you possibly be serious about painting a flower?
Do you think this is part of the cultural moment? The 20th century has been a very rough ride, and when you started making your work mid-century, things were pretty grim in many respects—although they were also becoming prosperous in others. That was the moment where pain, angst, anguish, struggle, anger, the whole mythology of the artist as exemplary sufferer or exemplary worker—someone outside of society—came about. And that’s the moment when Picasso eclipsed Matisse as a model, for example.
Yes. In the 1950s there was a feeling of a community and it was an open place for ideas and things. It was really fabulous in the sense that you could learn a lot. There was so much art. But I don’t think I could have gone on being in the 1950s; I think I would have cracked up. Living was pretty rough if you didn’t want to sell out, if you wanted to be a full- time, serious painter—”serious” is to paint seven days a week and to take the consequences of your decision. I didn’t want to paint soft pictures that people liked. And I also wanted to make realistic paintings, which people didn’t think you could do then.
You’ve managed to slip through the nets of one movement after another. You were sort of Pop in some people’s eyes, but not Pop enough. You were a gestural realist in some people’s eyes, but were not a member of a movement.
It actually started in the 1950s. I was doing realistic painting and all of a sudden there was Larry Rivers, and I went concrete and all of a sudden there was Richard Diebenkorn. I went into popular images and all of a sudden there was Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. And then there was the figurative stuff later on. I just didn’t fit. My style always had this or that in it. I was doing hard-edge painting in the mid-1950s; anything that was in the air I was getting.
I think I have a sensitivity towards fashion and that’s what helped me. Fashion is dealing with the present tense and currents. Fashion is a no-no to people for whom the artist “creates beauty forever”– beauty is a constant factor and will always be there. It’s unstable when you get to fashion, because it changes. Nothing is stable.
That might in part explain why there’s so much attention paid now to your work among younger people. Certain kinds of modernism put themselves forward as the definitive statement, the be all and end all, and you didn’t.
And they thought that they were the culmination of history, that they’d got to the essence of things and after that everybody could go home. The discovery – or rediscovery—was a shift away from that kind of certainty. To show as you do in your paintings that things move and change, that styles change, to depict very specific moments of light, of gesture: all of those things militate against an idea of the big historical wheel turning. You said earlier that in the 1950s you felt at odds with the idea that modern art, modernism, was to do with progress.
Yes, I don’t believe in progress in art. It’s an idea that a lot of abstract painters had and to me it’s obsolete. It’s a Hegelian idea. Art doesn’t progress, it just changes. There’re some caveman paintings that are as good as anything I’ve seen. They’re real art. I do think you have to make it new, though; as an artist, what you’re trying to do is make something new, that you didn’t see before. Malevich thought he was making progress. He’s a fantastic artist, but he isn’t involved in progress.
Let me flip it over. There’re a lot of artists I know, particularly younger artists, who gravitate to figurative painting, but who actually take the opposite view. What they want to do is to conserve or hold on to a given tradition.
I know, I know. I don’t feel that. It’s like past-tense painting. I want it to be new, and I’d like it to be as fashionable as anything else.
Did you ever believe you had to work out a tradition in that way?
No. I had this teacher when I was in art school and he said that art always returns to old values. I wondered about that.
Is there something to be said for the art in the 1980s that looked self-consciously over its shoulder—sometimes sarcastically, sometimes enviously—at the past?
It had to do with nostalgia in the 1980s
Painting seems far removed from the old modernist idealism. And in some sense, because of that, it’s a little reduced in its ambitions. But it does seem stylistically aggressive.
Certainly, nowadays, lots of younger artists working in installation, performance, or video—people coming through the schools or just starting out—still have a sense that they have the wind of history at their back even though some of these “new media” are 40, 50, 60 or more years old.
One winter I started to read St. Augustine. It was kind of great. He says, anything past is past and it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s a half hour ago or 2,000 years. And the future doesn’t exist; what exists is the present. When you start talking about installation and those things, they become traditional forms very quickly. In two years, those artists are out of it; they’re way off the bubble line as far as fashion and style go, and the majority of art done off the bubble is behind. I’m trying to fight for the top of the bubble. So, if you have 20 million guys working two years off, it doesn’t seem so threatening. [laughs]
What you’ve got now is a series of simultaneous traditions. You’ve got a tradition of Duchampian art-making; you’ve got a tradition of....
Duchampian art-making is obsolete—period. My definition of the avant-garde is something that happened in France a long, long time ago. The prime thing the avant-garde was built on was invention. It’s connected to Surrealism and Dada, which had invention at their core. But the reason my audience has gotten much larger has to do with the death of the avant-garde. It just passed away about seven or eight years ago. [laughs]
That’s very American usage “just passed away.”
It’s not dead, it “just passed away”.... Some artists—Giacometti is one of them—kind of used up all the oxygen in the room they occupied. There’s very little you can take out of Giacometti that doesn’t attach itself to his style. Other artists leave some pieces that can be picked up and used by somebody else. I wondered if you see yourself as having left a vocabulary or an attitude that others can push off from; not a style that can be appropriated, but a way of solving problems or thinking about painting?
It’s gone more that way. It definitely seems to have gone that way, because people have come over
to me and said, “thank you.” Some of them are making movies and all kinds of different things. They’ve chosen very different forms. When people try to paint like me, it’s usually pretty embarrassing, because
of the technical demands. They can’t come up with the technique.
A lot of the visual things in my work have been appropriated by all kinds of people—in advertising, movies—outside of the art world. I think it’s my gain; it makes me feel good that the work can be used. I feel great about that. The thing about Giacometti is very interesting; it’s an out-of-fashion idea and yet it’s real big-time sculpture. I don’t know whether it’s used up, as you say, because it’s out of fashion or because there isn’t anything there.
You’ve been in style and in fashion for a very, very long time. Is there a way in which you see this moment as different from others? For example, you were very much part of the painterly realist scene in the 1950s and 1960s....
I was a little off it.
A little off, yes, but very much in play. And a while ago, for instance, you were in “Dear Painter...” in Paris in the company of Elizabeth Peyton and Kurt Kauper and a whole series of European artists. Let me throw out a possibility: it’s not so much a matter of cool—which is a hyper style in its way—that gives you this fashionableness, but, rather, of decorum, which is a very old value in classical art, where things are, in a sense, proportionate, and balanced. The classical styles of decorum have come back in a lot of work that’s otherwise very hip on its surface.
Do you think it’s the classicism?
That’s not so bad.
It’s an interesting idea.
Let’s talk a little bit about New York and of being a New York painter now. What do you think your relationship to this city is? How do you feel New York is as a city for art now?
You have a lot of stuff coming here still. It’s a fairly high-energy place, which really helps young artists. They have commercial possibilities here that we didn’t have. I think the commercial thing in painting hasn’t been understood—how important it is. There’s a whole world out there that exists without October magazine.
Yes, you bet!
There’s a big influence of institutions and academia but I think the other side is the big influence of the commercial. There are two kinds of horrors. If you go to an art fair, it’s a commercial enterprise. The paintings are there to sell. If you go to the Whitney Biennial it’s supposed to be academic art. It’s a terrible, competitive situation. One’s institutional and one’s commercial. And they’re in slightly different places, and I belong to both. But I believe I have more connection to the commercial world than to the institutional.
New York was, for many years, a center. The center, some people thought. What’s your sense of New York’s situation and the effect that it has on being a painter?
I had the luck to come out of school and be right next to where it was all happening. But Germany and England are turning out really good painters, so I think painting now is really international. New York has sort of disintegrated as the center. It’s a bigger playing field, but I don’t think there are more players. They’re just spread out more.
Why do you think there’s more painting outside New York now?
They have some really good art schools in Germany and England. I think that’s it. The economies of the countries in Europe have improved a lot, so they can support artists, too. Artists have more of a chance if you have an economy where the cost of living is low than if it’s very high. In Paris, it was low; then it became high, and you have fewer artists coming out of there. New York has changed from low cost to higher cost, and it makes it more difficult.
Around the early 1980s, you broke through to a European audience that you hadn’t previously had. A lot of your work is circulating in Europe, and in a way this book represents a change in perception: previously your audience was primarily American, now it’s truly international. You’ve been seen in Britain, in Russia, in Germany, in France, and so on a lot in the last decade and a half. You’re present in these burgeoning art scenes. What’s your sense of why this has happened?
It’s kind of weird because the paintings were once considered like bad Pop art or bad photo-realism in Europe.
Do you think you’re seen as a particularly American artist in Europe?
Yes, they see me as American. It used to be "too American.” Now, they like it because it’s American. It’s like how we enjoy German movies.
And what’s that American quality?
I want to paint what I see; I don’t want to paint what someone else painted. I live in New York and I go up to Maine, and that’s what I paint. I don’t want to paint other people’s pictures in my studio. That makes it American, don’t you think? When you’re working with the tradition of art, you’re usually painting like the paintings you’ve seen; your vision is other people’s vision. You see things through the culture in which you live, and the culture in which you live is always past tense. Some people are always seeing things in another time period. To see things in the present time period, you have to break through, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
Bice Curiger—who edited the original issue of Parkett, a magazine that focused on your work and broke things open in Europe for you—also curated a show called “Birth of the Cool.” She associated you and a number of other artists with a particular kind of American sensibility, a jazz aesthetic.
I grew up in a cool world. It was Queens. In high school we were dancing half-time Lindys. It was really cool stuff; whereas everything’s very hot in
the Bronx and other places. That was the start of the sensibility. I never responded emotionally to things.
It was always, like, not responding. My father takes me to the circus, and I’m supposed to be very happy that I’m at a circus and everyone’s laughing and screaming and I’m saying, “What the hell am I doing here?” I had to laugh to make my father feel good.
I was given psychological tests when I went to Cooper Union, and I was on the bottom of the chart. There was no response to anything much. [laughs] So it’s two things. One is personal—my reaction level is really on the bottom. The other was the cultural thing, with jazz, which came at about the same time. I couldn’t believe it when I heard it—it was terrific stuff. You really related. So, these cultural things come in waves. You get on it or you miss it. Like the breakdown of linear form in Faulkner and de Kooning—they say it has to do with Existentialism, but it had as much to do with jazz, and bebop. Bebop and de Kooning and Faulkner were all doing the same thing at the same time.
These intellectuals tied it to a European past tense: they tied it into the Existentialist movement—the heroic man alone and stuff like that. The artists lived swell because they were getting great promotion. But I thought it was baloney—just something in the air. By the end of the 1950s they were working out a new type of linear idea and styling in music. Sonny Rollins did “Wagon Wheels,” and it was dynamite. It was all linear again. These cultural waves are things that no one can predetermine, no one can really explain—they just happen. It has to do with fashion. Style and fashion go together.
Something you’ve talked about a little bit, both directly and indirectly, is about choosing to be a painter who works from the outside rather than the inside, from the exterior or surface of people and things. I wondered if you could speak about that as a general attitude towards what painting is and towards what you do, since so much of the way we’re educated to think about art hinges on the inner life of the painter or of form. The van Gogh story, the Pollock story, is about why it comes “from the inside out.”
I hate those sentimental art books; I really despise them. You know, “poor Vincent van Gogh” and the “soul of the artist” and “inner vision” and all that. A lot of times it’s like trying to put the content in front of the picture. For me, there’s nothing more mysterious than appearances. I want to see this thing fresh, and I don’t want anything to get in the way. Appearances, for me, are a real mystery. Sometimes
I’ll paint something, a sketch, and then I’ll do it over (and I can do some of them six times over), to get what I thought I saw, or to make me see something. To see something is not a given; it’s something you really have to be aggressive about. If you’re involved in that, telling some silly story about someone suffering seems of much less value. You have to deal with your own temperament. Everyone’s temperament is a little different. Mine’s very quick and electric. I was taught to paint slowly, but when I got into this quick, outdoor painting, I really connected. It’s malleable, painting; you try to take that medium and fit it to your temperament.
You can see that in the video Alex Katz Five Hours (Vivien Bittencourt/ Vincent Katz) of you working. When you start painting branches and leaves, the whole movement of your body, the whole rhythm, takes off in an entirely different direction. It’s interesting because until then, it’s all been anticipatory, spreading, and blending. And then “Bam!” Were you listening to music while you were working in the studio?
I usually use music to blot out the outside world.
What are you working on now?
The Winter  started with using photographs and gestures of people on a beach. I’ve been using gestures that I never used before, because this is the first time I’ve taken my own photos. I can get these quick-motion things that you couldn’t get any other way. Then I work perceptually to get the light, painting the landscape in plein air or sometimes getting a model to reproduce a gesture from a photo. I’ve been working on them a good part of the winter. I don’t have the control, so I decided to do some control painting. I’m doing attractive women with hats and coats in front of one of those beach scenes from the summer—a really artificial thing, but I have great control over them. The pictures are coming out terrific and I’m very happy. One day, I’m going to get bored, but I’m not bored yet.
This interview began as a public discussion between Alex Katz and Robert Storr held April 2, 2003 at the University of Pennsylvania, and continued as a private conversation a year later at Alex Katz’s studio.