This is Alex Katz:
He is a hugely influential American painter, known for his figurative work, close-ups, flatgrounds and affiliation with the first wave of the New York School. He is the pre-pop pop of NYC. Before Lichenstein, there was Katz – ‘I was on top of the bubble,’ he says. He is, importantly, not of the Pollock-posse; he is something else – deep in hot summers, the blues of calm oceans and the brilliance of glamour. Far, far away from the ego and torture of abstract expressionism, there is Katz, bathed in colour and optimism.
This Autumn, Katz is in Margate, my home town. And I am running late to meeting him face-to-face to interview him for Aesthetica Magazine.
I barge into the Clore of the Turner Contemporary Gallery (where his most recent show is – Give Me Tomorrow) about five minutes later than planned. The press conference (consisting of Katz, the director and curator of the gallery and a small handful of journalists) has already started so, holding my zoom (recording device), I hurriedly press record and take my seat. Unfortunately, in my rush, I hold my zoom upside down; the archive of the first five minutes of conversation are therefore completely indecipherable – just the sound of my hand rubbing against the microphone. I soon, however, notice my mistake and turn it the right way up.
The first question asked focusses on one particular room in the exhibition, Alex Katz On Painting, a room which looks at the artist’s own selection of paintings from the Tate Collection. These are works which have (apparently) inspired him or influenced him in some way. Included is a Turner (Seascape With Storm Coming On) as well as pieces by Hockney, Sickert and Rousseau. Katz’s answers, however, to questions on this selection verge on comical:
- The works selected from the tate collections; What are the reasons behind what you chose?
They sent me a lot of photos. There were some paintings I hadn’t even seen, and I just liked the look of them.
- As we are in the Turner Contemporary and there is a Turner in Alex Katz On Painting, can we assume that you are a fan of Turner?
No. I don’t particularly like Turner.
The conference continues for a while in a dialogue which dips in and out of sense, disappears off on great tangents and attempts to piece together the great man’s influences, thoughts and tastes (harder than one might think). Katz has a way with questions like no other; whatever anyone asks, he seems to just talk about what he fancies- veering off course, enlightening us on different and unexpected corners of his mind. He takes long pauses to laugh and doesn’t shy away from creating awkward silences with one-word-answers. He has a quiet confidence that comes with age: that comes with success and influence over whole movements of art.
- Where do you find your inspiration these days?
All different things… and sometimes (pause), we got a new tv set for example. We’d had a small one before and we thought, it’s time to get a big one. So we got a big one and I noticed that the close-ups on the tv set were completely different to the close-ups they used in the early sixties, so I thought I’d do some close-ups myself and then… Well, the previous summer I’d painted rocks and had a great light on the rocks, so I put the people I wanted the close-ups of in the same place as where the rocks were and that’s how I got into that series of close-ups.
And the flower paintings have been a continuous thing where I’ve painted flowers since the fifties. And I’m working on a lot of big flowers and er, I had real luck on the big one here, the brown one… it was way past anything I had done. And once you take a step into some place else like that, you just follow it up, so I have those two things going together… (I think the two things which Katz says are ‘together’ in this instance are ‘cropped’ images and flowers.)
Sometimes inspiration comes from ideas, sometimes it comes from movies… I’ve got a lot of paintings out of a Russian movie… there were people walking in the street and there were trees… and snow. And I thought it’d make a good image, so I found a place in New York that had trees (laughs) and I went down and made a painting and I froze because… it was awful! Then I took Ada down and made her pose… and that was awful too! But I got about seven or eight paintings out of it… and it all came out of a movie.
A local newspaper journalist then asks him about the town, creating a tense atmosphere around the room. Margate has just been through a dense period of regeneration and its old town has only recently (due to the opening of the gallery we all sit in) made a complete turn around from being depressingly bleak to becoming saturated by little cafes, galleries shops and vintage shops.
- What is your perception of Margate. How have you found it?
Err, well. It’s very charming town. Typical what I would expect. We were in St Ives which is a lot fancier somehow. (laughs). The oceans always great to look at, and I like the cheesy quality.
The journalist smiles and jots down something with a sigh (of relief?).
I’m up next in this circle-time-like dialogue/conference we have going on and ask about his music influences. However, the reply I get is slightly muddled and leads onto talk about fashion in general. I nod, however, in agreement (and perhaps confusion).
- I’m quite interested in your jazz influence and your images of dancing. Are you still influenced by music now and, if so, does it remain to be a big influence?
Painting is in the world of fashion. The hemlines go up the hemlines go down. That’s the way it is (laughs). Currents of fashion in the arts are not only in one area. So in the fifties there were things going on in Europe. There was existentialism… in the united states it was bebop and bebop was breaking down lines. There were no longer linear songs. They were breaking down. Like, William Faulkner was very popular. He was breaking down lines. And Pollock was breaking down lines too. It was just one big current. But the heat of that was in the cool. And that was pretty much… things got cool. In the sixties it was French novelists writing very descriptive writing and Americans doing very descriptive painting and we had those currents that go on. And I think, my work: it relates to all the currents. And if it doesn’t relate to the currents its sort of like… it can be a very good painting, but its out of it. Does that answer your question?
To be honest, it doesn’t really. But I say yes anyway in my confusion. I ask another question to dig a little deeper.
- Do you listen to anything now? If so, what do you listen to?
I think we’re in a time where er, it’s a… things are getting more personal and more recessive , you know? In general with tired periods… almost a depressed period. Now is not an up period. The fifties were really up and so were the sixties. But I think it’s a little, erm this is a slightly, depressed period all over. So you get depressed art (chuckles).
I nod again and laugh with him as the next person prepares to speak.
- I really like Beige Ocean
- Beige Ocean… … Beige Ocean?
Oh, Beige Open. Yes? (n.b the work in question is actually called ‘Beige Ocean’)
- I was wondering…
That was problematic to me. I didn’t think anyone would ever get it.
- Really? Well, I really like it…
I thought that it would be for a very small audience and if I were picking the show, I would not have put it in and Sarah (curator), I guess wanted water paintings. So she picked Beige Ocean and I thought… ok.
Water is very hard to paint well. It’s to do with transparency, weight, motion. Very few people can paint water well. And if you can paint water well it doesn’t mean anything to most people, because they don’t think about it. And Beige Ocean, because that’s what it’s about… well… ermmm. I’m very happy that you like it! (laughs). I think it looks real good here, but.. you know, who am I?
The same journalist continues, finally managing to complete her original question…
- I was wondering what attracts you to the sea?
Well… It looks great. And then you try and paint it and you see what the problems are… I think my water paintings go back to the late fifties and I keep going back to the same things. And the thing about inspiration: in the early sixties, I wanted to paint a painting that was really aggressive, because they had all these macho abstract expressionist paintings and the idea was to knock them off the wall with a flower, knock them off the wall with a baby…
- Your work has the feel good factor…
I reacted to the sentimentality of nineteenth century realism… I never liked it. You know? I think I’m a little bit of an escapist, so it all adds up to the feel good… and I like to give people, the general public, something pleasant. I think the nineteenth century stuff with Victor Hugo… some of those sad stories seem very sentimental to me… I don’t like Gypsy music… minor key stuff… it’s all over America, people love it in America. (singing) ‘I’m so sad and lonely now that you’ve gooone.’… (laughs). Stuff like that.. I really despise that. I’m not interested in stories at all. I’m interested in the paint and the images.
- How important is it for you to work from life?
The thing of ‘what is realistic?’ is to me, variable, you know? And it’s determined by the culture you live in and by the graphic images youre presented with. And we are, at this point…. photography dominates the vision of all of us. The thing which I started real early, painting outdoors… I made a realistic picture and it was boring. And I realized it was very well painted and all that but it only did something that was old and I wanted to do something that was new. So then I thought, what IS realistic? A Rembrandt isn’t realistic… it doesn’t look like anything I’m looking at… I don’t see those dark shadows. You know? And then you say ‘what is realistic?’… well a photograph isn’t. and you try to define what’s realistic in paint and it becomes like er, um, unsolvable, but interesting. You solve it for a while, but it doesn’t stay. (pause) It keeps me involved though.
Later, I’m allowed a little while to interview Alex on my own over coffee. Moments before going in, a small lady with bushy grey hair and a big grin puts her hand out to shake mine. ‘Hi, I’m Ada.’ ‘Hi, I’m Claire. It’s lovely to meet you.’ I say. We have a small conversation about the gallery and its big sea view windows. Only when we say our goodbyes and I go in to chat with Alex, do I realise that Ada is The Ada: Alex Katz’s wife, Alex Katz’s muse. How I didn’t realise, with her beaming face and American accent, I have no idea.
Much of what Alex and I discussed made it into my final article, but here are a couple of questions (or half-questions) which didn’t fit:
- The bright colours in your work, they…
They’re happy. I’ve always felt that I’ve wanted to bring something ‘up’ to people rather than ‘down.’ Like I said, I don’t like gypsy music… (laughs)
- Do you have an aim or message behind your work?
It’s multiple. You’re doing a whole bunch of things at once. If anyone’s really got some brains or talent, you have to deal with everyone. Like, you’ve got pretty much five audiences you’re trying to deal with and you have to try to do something for everybody. Well… that’s what I do.
- I know you say that painting’s a conscious process for you. Is there any spontaneity to it as well?
The sketches are all unconscious, as I’m just trying to get something down. I’m not thinking, you know? I try to get some life into the larger paintings.
After our quarter-hour chat, Alex is ushered off quickly to prepare for a live broadcast interview. In the meantime, I catch up with Ada and we talk about her stay in England and what she thinks of the show. She compliments my hair and I blush, her youthful images of days on the beach surrounding us: her in glamourous hats, sunglasses, bathing suits.
Before leaving, Ada says to one of the invigilators, ‘I really like these shirts,’ gesturing to the Alex Katz Give Me Tomorrow uniform tee. ‘Could we maybe have a couple sent to us?’ The invigilator happily replies: ‘Yeh, of course! How many would you like?’ The muse, with the glitter of past glamour in her eye replies: ‘Oh, just two, one for me, one for Alex.’
This post is the overflow of an interview and review for Aesthetica Magazine: pending publication