Alex Katz has occupied a unique position in contemporary representational painting for more than four decades. This spring sees two contrasting PaceWildenstein shows in New York that offer a new opportunity to consider his achievement.
In the last week in February, the gallery will exhibit Katzs latest paintings at the Art Dealers Association of Americas Art Show, and in April, it will present "Alex Katz1960s Paintings" at its West 22nd Street gallery. In addition, March sees the publication of a major new Phaidon monograph.
Alex, youve always talked about change occurring incrementally in your work. If you were to look at your older paintings, and to compare with how you are working now, what would you see as the major changes?
Well, the older paintings were more direct than these, and a lot of it was hit and miss. I just painted. I think in the first 10 years, I destroyed a thousand paintings. I wanted to be free. I wanted to be open. In art school, we painted dry and slowdry paint on dry paintand it was derived from Cubism and Paul Klee. I went into this open painting and I didnt have much control and I was experimenting. I was trying to paint a realistic picture that was contemporary or modern or post-abstract (or after-abstract in a way).
So it was direct painting, but the first thing I did was Double Ada in 59: Its a portrait, but its not done directly from what I observed or from a photo, so I had to change my ideas about what I was doing. Then in the 60s, I enlarged the size, and I couldnt paint in the same way any more, so I started painting indirectfrom sketches. As the 60s wore on, the paintings got denser, and the technique changed again. So its been incremental, but its been quite a reversal. Right now, theyre quite artificial compared to when I started.
Do you mean artificial in the sense that theyre assembled out of different components?
Yeah, I just take them out of different sources and put them together. The direct paintings still there in the sketchesthats the same way Ive always paintedbut with these [he gestures toward a painting behind him], I couldnt stand out in the middle of the road and paint three people like that.
When you said that you wanted your painting to be free, what did you mean by that?
There are different kinds of freedom. Freedom in the 50s was trying to get free of Picasso and Matisse, trying to get out of that other way of painting, and trying to paint in an open way, more like Pollock.
When I think of freedom now, its taking the sketches and trying to get that sort of painting from the unconscious. So when I do something like a large tree, the paint is being put down faster than I can think. Thats the freedom. And thats been consistent since the 50s, that kind of thing.
Yes, people have often commented on how quickly you paint.
I paint very quickly. Its very carefully planned, but I want to paint it open.
What did you mean when you mentioned painting from your unconscious?
I think that as children, all people have artistic rhythms, visual rhythms inside of them, and they express themselves. When you look at childrens drawings, they have beautiful rhythms. And then you learn how to draw and you lose it all.
And is that what youre trying to regain in your work?
Im trying to make you see the world through my paintings. The way you get there is that you have an intellectual program and you try to correlate it with something you see, which is unconscious or intuitive.
Well, certainly something that is true of your work is that appears very simple, but it carries more meaning than it seems to on first glance.
Its very reductive. It fits my personality. I think that way: Im analytical and reductive. Excess always seemed distasteful to me.
How do you feel about the fact that in the last few years, there seems to be a whole new audience for your work, and that youre being seen as an influence on a new generation of painters?
People all over the world are contacting me. Im in a show in Japan just nowthere are 13 artists from all over the worldand the person closest to me in age is 30 years younger than I am. I relate more to the kids. I never really fit in with anything else. I dont really fit in with the kids either, but I fit in as much as I ever did with Pop art or with photorealism. I was dragged into those things, but I could never have been at the center of any of them. I think for years people thought of me as a bad Pop artist or a bad photorealist.
But why do you think that younger painters are attracted by your work now?
Its really simple painting. There are no gimmicks. It doesnt depend on invention. For so long, the art worlds just been full of novelty, but this [gesturing to one of his paintings] is a whole different thing. The other thing is that Im not so hot as a modern artist either. The works not a hundred percent modern. So that in the time period were living in now, my work makes more sense to people.
Because nowadays means so much more is available?
Yes. Youre dealing with all different time periods and you can take whatever you want. And I've always been like that. My work didnt fit great in the modern period. It fits now.