Alex Katz interview

by Mie Iwatsuki with Eric C. Shiner


PHOTO: MIE and ALEX in front of the painting , "Three Women" which he painted her on the right, another portrait of MIE was purchased by the family of Master sculptor, Brancuci.

Alex Katz interview by Mie Iwatsuki with Eric C. Shiner
Mie: First of all I would like to say from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for selecting me as one of your models for your painting. I used to be a painter and I studied painting at school and I always admired your painting. I think you are the most influential figurative painter in the whole of art history. Your painting is so simplified and your brush stroke is stunning and can't be categorized by any movement but your own. To be in your painting was my dream, and you made it come true.
Alex: It was my pleasure!
Mie: First of all, I'd like to ask you about the link between realism and
surrealism in your work. What I perceived from the book you suggested I read, Junichiro Tanizaki's Mad Old Man, was that this was a story about an Old man's juxtaposing his actual life and his imaginary world. It was as though the two coexisted or created in his mind unconsciously. I think that you are the first painter to represent the perceptual realism in your work after Abstract Expressionism, and that there are links in your work to surrealism as well. For example, speaking of links in art history, you said that you were influenced by the fluidity of Manet, who himself had looked to Velasquez.
You also said that Arshile Gorky's exhibition in 1949 was one of the influential as well as the Matisse exhibition. I recall that Arshile Gorky who also influenced by the surrealist ideas such as automatism creating with unconscious, he was of the bridge from European surrealism to American abstraction. Like the way all those paintings belongs to the paintings before them, It seems to be tied to automatism and the imagination or subconscious- something to do with an inner artistic vision. What do you think about this? Are you more concerned about the likeness of the figure or something else?
Alex: It's appearance. It's as simple as that. I think you don't see through your own eyes. You see through the eyes of your culture. It's kind of like referring to the previous culture but seeing it with contemporary eyes. You make it new. There's a variable there, and what I try to do is define what I see, and see what I see. For me, that's a much more ambitious thing than one's feelings or imagination or any idea you have. It's basically very simple. Most art is retro. It looks like it's new but it's old. The whole idea is to make something new. It's really very simple.
Mie: Your paintings seem to depict one moment in time, but a moment that only exists in your world.
Alex: Well, I think it has to do with a quick light. My light is very quick. It's really immediate. I think de Kooning's light is very quick, and Klein's light is very quick and that's what I like. The impressionists, for the most part, their light is slow. It's a slow light; it's a light on top of a light. It's more like a Matthew Brady or something, where mine is instantaneous. I do have things that help me go where I want to go. I think that Sargent's light is very quick. That's the most distinctive part of his work.

Eric C. Shiner
Guest Curator, Japan Society
"Making a Home:  Japanese Artists in New York"
Fall, 2007

Eric: Speaking in terms of this quick light, how do you think your work might relate to the paparazzi and the flash of the bulb?

Alex: The big difference between my work and Weegee is that Weegee still isn't in the present tense. If you do a painting, it's in the present tense. It's a different energy. I think that Weegee is fabulous.
Mie: Speaking of quickness, I think that you were influenced by Jackson Pollock's quick painting.
Alex: Yeah, definitely. Jackson Pollock's light is very quick. It was like freedom. It was a way of getting out of Paris. (laughter) The country was basically either regional or provincial modern and the provincial modern was much more interesting. But when Pollock came, it was all of a sudden that you didn't have to be a follower of Picasso or Matisse. It opened it up a lot. And light is the thing. That immediate light. The gesture took the place of all the things they put in a painting. Light and gesture.
Mie: I heard that the most influential exhibition for you was the 1949 Arshile Gorky exhibition.
Alex: No. I thought the Gorky exhibition was terrific. But I thought the Matisse exhibition in the same year was unreal. It was one with the sling chair and new paintings. My teacher at Cooper said, 'Go see this show! He's an old man, but he still can paint!' (laughter) And my teacher was 65...but for me there was no difference between 65 and 80. So I went to see the show, and it was unlike anything I'd seen in my whole that point. Whereas I thought the Gorky show was terrific, but technically, the Matisse show was just overpowering. How could anyone paint that well?
Mie: So your cut outs were also influenced by Matisse?
Alex: Yeah. I saw Matisse's cut outs in the early 50s. There were Kooning had done some, and Mark Tobey too. There was something in the air.
Mie: When you first did cut outs they were very small in scale.
Alex: Very small.
Mie: How did you make the leap to that scale?
Alex: It was against the large paintings. Everyone was doing large paintings. I wanted to do something small, you know. I mean it was all about being heroic. It was kind of a macho world I couldn't relate to really. I thought I could make something really strong that could hold up...and I did. We're going to show all of them this summer at Colby College.
Mie: That's great. You donated over 400 paintings to Colby.
Alex: Well, collages are only around 70. I did them for about five years.
Mie: It must be great to have your own wing in a museum.
Alex: Yeah, it's nice. I can go see my paintings whenever I want! (laughter)
Mie: Are they going to publish a catalog?
Alex: Yeah, they are.
Mie: If you were to pick your favorite painting from your works, what would it be?
Alex: I don't know. I think the Blue Umbrella or the Black Dress might be the paintings that most people like. But I like the one...I don't's hard to say which one I like the best coz' they're all kind of different. And if I work hard on a painting, I don't like it. (laughter) The paintings I tend to like sometimes aren't the best paintings ten years later, you know? There are paintings where I've had to struggle, where I don't have control. They usually have more energy than something that's more refined. I used to like some of those a lot and wouldn't mind having some of those around.
Mie: There is one painting I saw before that is my image of couples in a forest.
Alex: You paint a painting and it comes out ok, and then you show it, and someone in front of the painting breaks down and cries, well it seems very strange. Coz' to me, I just painted the painting the best I could. I'm not affected by my paintings the way I was affected by some others when I was young.
Eric: It's quite important to remember that every single person that comes into an art gallery or to an art museum is coming with their own viewpoint...
Alex: Oh yeah...everyone sees a picture differently.
Eric: You never know what's going to trigger something in someone.
Alex: Yeah, you don't know what it's going to be.
Mie: This is my favorite painting. (She shows Alex a catalogue image of three couples walking through the forest arm in arm.) It really captures this moment in the forest. How did you come up with this triptych idea?
Alex: Well, there's a series and they started with the men and women touching...I wanted to do paintings of people touching each other. Well, the first one was men and women touching each other, and that was technically the best. And then I did the one of the women touching each other. They were all different types of women...there were a couple of athletes and some lesbians...and they all hold each other a little differently. And then I did men touching each other. And then I did couples in the woods; it's a more lyric thing. It had to do with the way they hold each other. This one sort of has this thing of an implied motion that goes into time. It has a sense of loss. Most of the others are more heraldic. This one goes into that.
Mie: I think you worked from photographs before.
Alex: Well, I did the early ones from photographs that had no faces. That was very early. And now I'm working from photographs. Occasionally in the seventies I worked from photographs and what I would do if I liked the photograph, I'd get people to pose. So they're in the same spot. There's one of Vincent and a friend of his and a photograph on Mt. Saint Michelle that I liked and then I had him and some friends pose in Maine on a dock. It's the same idea and configuration. And the last four or five years I started to take photos on the beach and I could get gestures that I never could get otherwise. I never could get those gestures.
Eric: I think we have a new understanding of gesture and motion that has to do with the huge avalanche of images we get with the Internet.
Alex: Oh, yeah. Exactly. The amount of images you get from photography is enormous. You can't turn your head in the city without getting photos. They dominate your brain. They think the photos are realistic. They take the place of neon. It's a fascinating thing. I grew up in Queens, and one kid was a farmer. They used to have land in Richmond Hills and then they sold it and retired. So you have this very wealthy guy with a little house. So his son and I were standing on the street and he looks 400 yards away...two city blocks...there's a little speck there, and he says, 'That's so and so.' And I remember I was about eight years old and I thought, 'What is this guy talking about?' I had good eyes, and I could see the speck, but I'm not trained to see things at a distance and tell you what they are. If he said it, then I could see it. He would know by the way the person was walking, and it came from his father. They could know, coz' you're on a farm you need to know who's coming...and know who it was. Other people are pretty visual, but not that way.
Eric: Interesting.
Alex: Isn't it!?
Eric: Very. You can see a silhouette or a gait and know.
Alex: Years later, I was trying to paint a moose in Maine with a guide, and the guide can look and see a speck and tell you what it is. I can see the speck and I don't know what it is; if he tells me, maybe I can know what it is. A bird is a speck this big.
Eric: It's like being on safari in Africa. The guide sees something half a mile away and knows immediately what it is.
Alex: I can look at the sky and say, 'I need a raincoat coz' it's going to rain in fifteen minutes.' And most people don't ever look at the sky in New York, or they don't pay attention to it, or they have no information on it. I think people see things in their cultural backgrounds. And then their personalities are different. So, if you go back to what you (Eric) said, I think all people see things different to a degree...inside the culture. Outside the culture...ok...Gombrich says that African art is symbolic and Impressionism is realistic. And I say, 'To whom?'
Eric: Exactly! To whom!?
Alex: To an African, an Impressionist painting is not realistic. It completely doesn't make any sense. And their art is realistic. It's a different culture and a different way of seeing. And Western African culture is as old as ours anyway. People say it's primitive, but hardly! And Gombrich, a very well known art historian, making a mistake like that, it discounts...and completely writes the man off for me. That one sentence, and I'll never read anything of his.
Eric: Exactly what I thought. It's consistent across the board in art history.
Alex: Yeah, once he says a sentence like that, you realize how narrow his thinking is.
Eric: It's really amazing how so many art historians have such tunnel vision in terms of their specific field.
Alex: They can't see outside of their field. Like they have blinders. There was a guy when I went to art school who could really write. It was unreal. It was complete bullshit; he could really shovel it. And we all used to laugh, and the teacher was overpowered. And the teacher said, 'I know this is plagiarism, but I don't have the time to look it up.' And it wasn't plagiarism, it was just bullshit. (laughter) Anyhow, this guy decided to become an art historian, and I didn't see him for years. And one day I ran into him at the Met, and I said, 'What are you doing?' And he told me. And I told him I just read this interesting Herbert Reid book and he said, 'My period is 17th century, and if I'm not reading in the 17th century, I read for fun. And you know perfectly well that Herbert Reid is not fun.' (laughter) How's that? That's an art historian! Have you read Belting's book The Death of Art History?
Eric: I read a chapter from it, so that doesn't count.
Alex: But his whole thing is...what you're getting something that started in Germany. Art history sort of starts in the 18th didn't exist before then. And these German guys got it and they froze it. You know, you've got Raphael and Michaelangelo, and they're on top of the buildings. The teacher I had, Zucker, said, 'You're too close to judge anything in the 20th century. It's too new. It's not art history.' And the Belting thing, it's like it's open. In the modern world, everything moves around. It's got a really big reputation. I guess the book in Germany was like a bombshell. He actually had me write something for him...but it's in German, so I never read it! (laughter)
Mie: Who is your favorite philosopher?
Alex: John Rawls. Coz' he's here now. He replaced the moral system with the legal system. I think that would be a great help for the whole world.
Mie: Talking about linguistics and American language again, what do you think about the notion that comes from Wittgenstein when he said, 'Something that can be shown cannot be said'?
Alex: Well, it's like an unconscious intelligence. Somehow you try to go into that area-otherwise it's just ideas. And as far as ideas go, there are so many people that can outthink me in ideas that I'd be an idiot to go into the idea business. I'm bright enough, but there are a lot of bright people. But when you get into the unconscious and subconscious brain, you can make things, and I think with a good painting, you shouldn't be able to fully explain it. It's got to have loose ends on it. And that's part of what he was saying, that you can't explain it. You tell some critics that you can't fully explain a painting and they think you're crazy. But you can't. One part drops out and you look at it another way, and it doesn't make sense. It's the loose ends that you keep looking for, and they're what allow you to develop.

Mie: Recently, your paintings have become more and more fashionable. Do you think that you are more influenced by fashion right now?

Alex: Well, the paintings are fashionable. And I've been fooling around with fashion. But those are two different things. I've always liked the ephemeral quality of fashion. And I've always liked the style of fashion. Starting in the 70's, I started on it with some energy. I always like the conservative art historians who thought that fashion had nothing to do with my art. I think art is like the fashion business. There's an interesting thing that Balanchine once wrote about the classic ballet...he said that the ballet is connected to fashion: Every year you have to change the hemline on the dress in ballet. (laughter) And I think that's sort of the same thing with painting. Nobody wants a five-year-old painting unless the guy's at the top of the line.
Eric: It's like couture. It's changing constantly.
Alex: Absolutely. You have to hone your center. A designer really doesn't have a center, so it's easier for the designer to move from one idea to the next. But artists have centers, and if they can't take their center with them, they're dead. You have to be able to keep your center; that's the hard part. It's a balance between consciousness and ego. Consciousness is the world outside that influences the center.
Eric: But fashion houses have a center, a brand identity.
Alex: Well, what's his name, Balenciaga couldn't move into the 60s gracefully. He was king. His work was fabulous. There wasn't anyone better. But when it came to the 60s, he couldn't keep up with the aesthetics.
Eric: Yes, the house of Balenciaga was stuck in a rut for decades. Only recently has it reemerged.
Alex: But he's dead! They can revive other things, but they couldn't deal with the 60's successfully.
Mie: We'd like to make your dream come true. To be in your painting was my dream come true. We'd like to find an artist to paint your portrait. Who would you like to paint you?
Alex: I've never wanted to be in a painting. I don't like posing! (laughter)
Mie: But you were the model for a Chuck Close work.
Alex: That's coz' I knew he wasn't going to make me look attractive. (laughter) But he's a very good artist and it was great to be in his work.
Mie: You're beautiful. When I was in front of you posing, seeing you with the window illuminating your figure from behind, it was so beautiful.
Alex: Well, thank you!
Mie: Apart from talking about art, I'd like to ask you some more cultural questions. For example, what do you eat for breakfast?
Alex: That's a good question. I orange...a bowl of one of those light things...and a cup of tea...with a banana there. Same thing every day.
Mie: And you like to go to the gym?
Alex: I do calisthenics every morning. I do 400 push-ups and 300 sit-ups every day. I'm really serious. In the summer I do decathlon. I do swimming and biking and stuff. Hanging around the studio working doesn't do it. It all depends on how much motion you have and how much you eat.
Mie: There is one more question. What is your favorite pair of shoes, and what is your favorite shoe story?
Alex: Shoes?! That's pretty weird. Well these are called 'the Cadillac of work shoes.' (laughter) They're supposed to be the top of the line for work shoes. Redwing. I don't have any other shoes that are top of the line! (laughter)
Mie: But I remember that you like Japanese businessmen's suits.
Alex: Well, I think that each culture presents people differently. Japanese business suits...their colors are very dull, but they make their skin look good. They call attention away from the face. They're very serious. British suits, however, are like a peacock...they have a lot more style. But for the Japanese, they'd be too narcissistic and draw too much attention. French suits aren't very good as a rule. They have pinched waists and they don't hang gracefully, where the English suits hang beautifully. They're made to hang and they have a continuous line from the shoulder to the floor. They do that by making the pants large at the waist. The pants come out to the edge of the jacket and flows, so they have a nice flow to the suit. Japanese suits are more boxy. American suits are more like Japanese than they are like English...they're kind of boxy and American businessmen dress to the face. They have a tie in the way usually. (laughter) The German suits are very similar. They're not as fluid as the English or Italian suits, but they're very dapper in style. It makes the Germans look good. Italian suits are fluid in their tailoring. They are tight on the body, and they're good on thin men. They look great in Italian suits.
Mie: I read something that you used to like wearing Zoot suits.
Alex: Yeah, I grew up with them. In high school we wore Zoot suits. After a Zoot suit, you can appreciate an English suit! (laughter) It's the same basic thing, the pants are very wide, but it's to make the line fluid. Altman made a movie with Zoot suits, and they made them up. The ones in California aren't the same thing. The pants were tight, so you didn't get the fluid line. And that's what it was all about.
Eric: Hearing you talk about this idea of navigating different cultures in terms of fashion, when I was in Hong Kong years ago, I had an Italian-style suit made by Indian tailors.
Alex: Yeah, in Japan you can get a better Italian meal than in New York! They give it to you perfect. Here, a lot of it comes from Naples and it gets all botched up. It was really hard to find good Italian food here.
Eric: But Japan does that across the board.
Alex: Yes, it's a collage culture. I mean the religion is Japanese, but that's about all. (laughter) Japanese people do everything better! (laughter) EXCEPT PAINTING! (laughter)
Mie: What do you think about the Super-Flat movement and Murakami Takashi's work?
(Eric explains the upcoming Little Boy exhibition curated by Takashi Murakami at the Japan Society with additional support from the Public Art Fund.)
Alex: I think that there are lots of different arts and lots of different people. When you're in Japan, you see a lot of shops that sell small things for people to hang in their house. You have different art for different people. I think the more art, the better. The government used to have this program where they'd buy art. They'd have local artists put up murals in airports. It was terrific. If you have sculpture in Queens or Staten Island...I think it's terrific. People can grow up with art. In schools, they should have graphic art coz' there are more than enough artists around. I'm up for art for all people. People feel excluded. It's not part of their culture. We don't have any culture here compared to Europe. If you go to Germany...when I first went there, I went to Cologne, and it's the same size as Baltimore. And Cologne has five concerts a night, and Baltimore has one baseball team! (laughter) The more art the better!
Every work of art has an environment where it should be ok. This painting would look good in a student's dormitory...that's like starting at the bottom...and other things would look good in a house, but not in a museum. My wife once saw a Hans Hoffman show, and she said, 'Only in an office!' (laughter)
Eric: Art is not only culturally dependent and reliant on the individual's viewpoint, but it's also spatially dependent in so many ways.
Alex: It's very complicated really. There are specific places for specific works.
Eric: And that's fully outside of the divide between low and high culture.
Alex: It's not about aesthetics. It's social necessity.
Eric: Have you done any public art projects?
Alex: Yeah, I did a big billboard in Times Square, a mural in a courthouse and I have a big cut out thing in Chicago. It was fun to do. The Times Square one was the most fun. It was a real kick...the other ones were like a job. (laughter)
Mie: Thank you so much!
Eric: Thank you!
Alex: It was great.

Jan.2006 Art and Antiques

GOTO Mag Top Page>>