Artist Alex Katz: 'Paint What's in Front of You'

BOSTON-American artist Alex Katz is best known for his bright everyday scenes, at the beach or a backyard barbecue, and a signature flat style that reads like commercial art and pre-dated pop art. A piece on Katz in the Smithsonian magazine was titled: "Alex Katz is cooler than ever."

And Alex Katz cuts quite a figure, tall thin, a bald head that he shaves everyday.

Alex Katz recently spoke with Here & Now host Robin Young when he visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to recieve the museum school's highest honor.  Young spoke with him about his start in Brooklyn, his discovery of "plein air" outdoor painting up in Maine and the influence of his wife Ada-- all against the backdrop of a slideshow of his work.

Robin Young: We begin with a huge self-portrait of a young man in a black suit and dapper hat. Who is that young man?

Alex Katz: The young man was impersonating an uptown person.


I didn't think who I was was important I thought the image was important working on large faces was new, using an up to date image was new so that was what it was about. I wanted to just get to the surface.


Alex Katz in J.Crew Magazine. (J.Crew)
Alex Katz in J.Crew. (J.Crew)

You've said that you didn't have this sense of your self. I liked reading that when you were a kid in Brooklyn accepted to Cooper Union you were shocked.

Absolutely I went to a trade school and I didn't know much about modern art. I thought I'd go into advertising or something like that to make a living.

I've read you described as a realist who came of age during abstract expressionism. Another critic referred to your work as a Hercules movie starring Steve Reeves. How would you describe what evolved?

Well I wanted work with contemporary gestures and most of the gestures that I was involved with like people drinking and smoking. I"m not going to use gestures from Paris---

--These are american--

So we started with what was in front of me. and I wanted to use contemporary gestures, contemporary clothes and contemporary people.  It was socially all the people I was seeing at the time more or less,I just invited them up and painted them.

So many of the pictures seem to be social interaction. Someone said light conversation, sunny backyards. Why is it important for you to catpure that?

Well it's the world I live in. just like that... and when I was real young this older guy was about 2 years older Dick Crocket, wanted to be a commercial artist.

And he said lets take a bikeride and find a thing and do watercolors. So I said swell. so we went out and did watercolors. Came back, showed them to my father and my father said "Dick you're going to be a great commercial artist," and he was. He looked at my thing and said you're going to have to be a fine artist.


Pretty inept is what he was telling me. Then he compounded it by saying why don't you paint your own backyard. Which is extremely intelligent and I resented it a great deal. I coudln't see a picture in the backyard. All I saw was a mess. And so I kept the idea- the idea seemed like a really good idea: paint your backyard, paint what's in front of you, don't pain anyone else's backyard.

And there's 59- you can't imagine what these paintings were like when they were new. They were a real shock to people, people were screaming at me, and people wouldn't talk to me and people liked them.

Why what were they saying?

They're heartless, they're illustrations. You know? And other people started to pick up on them.

I want to mention your wife Ada. an art historian wrote her that she's a woman, wife, mother, muse, model, hostess, myth, icon and New York goddess.

That's all true.


A a perfect model.


She saw a lot of movies and digested all the images so she never makes a bad gesture.

Could you speak to the 2 dimensional aspect of the paintings. Is it difficult to keep things two dimensional do you have to resist a pull to give it more depth or make it less flat?

No, I try to make a painting, like I"m trying to get that painting out at you as strongly and as fast as possible- and you're absolutely right with the 2-dimensional yeah.

It's all about appearance. I'm trying to show you what I think everything looks like.

Reality is a variable,  and you see through the eyes of your culture and it changes every you know 20 30 years. And I'm tryign to be on top.

I want to touch on the fact that you discovered "plenair" in Maine, this idea of painting outdoors. a nd you said that
this kind of back of your head painting wa s a high.

Well yeah because you start off with antique drawing and then you go to cubism which is very much like antique drawing. And this stuff is all a blast, you paint unconscious

Is that what you mean back of your head?

Yeah, you're painting from your unconscious brain and from my personality which is prety analytic, it was like really getting to another place.

Do you recommend that young artists---

No I have to find your own temperment. You have to find out who you are and...adjust the whole thing to yourself.

I read somehwere that you said it takes about 8-10 yehars for a painter to become a painter and then another ten years to become a master?

Yeah, the thing with painting, it takes 6-7 years out of art school to get yourself together and if you've really got talent and energy and become a master, it's usually 35-40.

When did you realize that you were the master of your craft?

I think sometime in my thirties. I think people started thinking I was you know...

How does that feel?

It doesn't help with you the next painting.


Alex Katz, I want to ask you about the J.crew catalogue. Now what are you thinking when they ask you to do this and boy do you look great in that actually.

Well, you know I know about posing. And I knew what he (photographer) wanted and I'm giving him what he wants.

Do you feel like that?

Feeling has nothing to do with it... I know what I look like. When you paint a dancer or someone who knows what they- they sortof tell you what they're going to look like. I think I have enough experience to do that.

How old are you now?


What do you try to capture now?

I'm chasing images all the time. You have ideas and all of a sudden you see something and that's an image.  And once I see an image, I know I'll get a painting.

Andrew wyeth told me it was the hair on the back of his head.

Well I can't say that.


Alex Katz thank you so much.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live