Interview with Alex Katz
by David Sylvester

DS: Does the all-overness in a lot of the big landscapes come from nature or from art?
AK: Oh, it’s art, it’s art, it’s not nature. I think nature’s just a vehicle for art.
DS: And whose art? Pollock’s?
AK: Pollock’s. And Baroque painting in general. But it’s a Baroque idea with an image that I guess is something like Pollock. Most Baroque paintings don’t have much of an image, they just have motion.
DS: Your portrait groups aren’t at all Baroque. They’re generally static, classical.
AK: When I did the first figure groups, The Cocktail Party and Lawn Party, I felt they didn’t move enough. And that’s one of the reasons I did the large flower paintings.
DS: Which are certainly Baroque.
AK: They have an image and they can’t stop, you keep moving on them.
DS: Like White Lilies. It would be extremely interesting to see whether you could get that Baroque quality into figure paintings. It’s difficult to do a Baroque figurecomposition when you can’t use figures in flight or sitting on clouds. So to do it you’d probably have to go into fantasy.
AK: No, that’s something I’m not going to do. The subject matter is given and I’m not moving from it. I started with that when I was twenty.
DS: So I take it that one of the reasons why you’re attracted to doing the large landscapes is that here you’re able to use a Baroque rhythm?
AK: Yes, that’s one of the things that interest me. Painting another way. But it’s been a new area. And it would seem exciting to go to a place that was kind of open and dangerous. And actually when you do a 10- or 20-foot painting wet-in-wet, you’re going where no one’s been. Wet-in-wet painting is just the same technique you’d use on a small painting but on a huge scale, and it seems to suit my temperament. So it’s like finding a part of yourself that you didn’t know was there and working with it. When you start out you learn to do something, then you try something else, then you take a chance and try something else and it works, and soon you’re doing things you never dreamed you could do. Then people ask you to do things and you do things, and you didn’t know you had a talent for it, and it’s a continual trip trying to find something that’s interesting to do.
DS: You were very emphatic when you said that the work would never go into fantasy.
AK: Well, everything could be changed, but I’m pretty sure, always working from an optical base, you have an idea about what a painting should be, or an idea of a painting. And then it correlates with something I see and then I start out empirically and optically. And when I do that I get involved in the light: there’s an unconscious procedure and it gets into something I wouldn’t have thought of to start with. It moves around a bit and that’s the part that’s interesting. Because when you go in there you find things; weird things happen and some are all right and some aren’t all right. But they wouldn’t have happened if you just took the idea and did it, and that’s part of it. I think with painting you have the opportunity to go inside yourself and find your unconscious intelligence or your nonverbal intelligence and your nonverbal sensibility and your nonverbal being in a sense. And you alternate between consciousness and unconsciousness and it can engage much more of you than if you just merely took an idea and executed it. You know it’s very bright but you don’t get as much into it. That’s my feeling about it. So the thing I’ve found is that the subject matter is the outside light. This is the thing that got me inside myself and that’s the thing I’ve been holding on to. And it’s just a matter of seeing how many variations I can do on it or where it could go.
DS: It’s the outside light?
AK: Yes, then, when you paint perceptually and you’re painting faster than you think, so to speak, you speed it up, and when you speed it up to that degree your unconscious takes over. The brush strokes are not conscious at all. I’ll make a copy and it won’t be as good, and I have to say, why did I do it this way? And it’s very interesting. It’s like the instincts of a child are kind of terrific in painting. It’s trying to find that kind of instinctual intelligence which all people have while dealing with it on a more sophisticated level than a child.
DS: It seems to me that in your paintings of the figure there’s a fairly constant ratio between the acceptance of the given form and formalization…
AK: Well, I think that the formalization is unconscious. You’ve done so much that it’s your vocabulary. The way you put a sentence together.
DS: The vocabulary is fairly constant, it seems to me, in your figure paintings.
AK: Yes, but I think in the landscapes too, though. It’s a much more simple vocabulary. It’s all a matter of rhythms and strokes. The rhythms and strokes are contained in a certain area, all of them, they don’t go outside of it much, my rhythms and strokes, if you break it down. And I think the rhythms and strokes of the heads in the portrait paintings are in a pattern too.
DS: Well, I’ll give you an example. In May (Plate 26), it seems to me it is a relatively literal transposition. It’s like a Pollock in its all-overness, and you can see the identity of the brush strokes as flickering marks of great inherent vitality, but they still seem to relate fairly directly to the object that had been perceived. Is that unfair?
AK: No, it’s okay.
DS: Now, with Lake Light (Plate 20), it seems to me that there’s a greater transposition, a greater systemization, a greater invention in the marks.
AK: I don’t know, I don’t know. No, I just think it went a little nuts. The painting got out of control a little bit. But the marks, I think, are all the same thing really. The grass marks on the front are the same as the marks on the water and on the other painting. The water marks are similar to the white marks in May.
DS: So you do find that optical?
AK: Oh yes, optical.
DS: It’s not a formula, not a schematization, it’s not a kind of equivalent?
AK: No, no, it’s optical. Well, they are all kind of equivalents, they are just a different kind of painting, a different space. One’s closer and the other’s further away and I think that Lake Light was a much more difficult thing. It’s catching light in the late afternoon. You have this great big blinding passage of light that you are dealing with and things around it. I’d worked on that for three or four summers, different paintings, and this summer I did that one and that was the end of it, I finally got there. But it was a little out of control. But basically the strokes are all optical.
DS: It’s equally related to the optical?
AK: The water becomes white and grey with black in it. With gestures and with light the difficulty factor makes things more interesting, so it’s much more interesting to me now. I’m using moving figures. I’m doing several points of view at the same time and they look like they are from one but the figures are more active, so they have more motion in them. Like doing a smile, I did a whole series of smiles. And these are very fleeting fast things and in the landscapes I’ve done things like twilight in which you have a fifteen-minute interval to see it. And Lake Light is that kind of thing; it’s a fifteen-minute interval you’re looking at. The light is sliding across the lake and you have fifteen minutes to get that particular thing. These are really high-speed sensations and I find it very interesting.
DS: You mean as with Monet and the haystacks?
AK: No, his time is much slower than mine. He went back over them at the same time every day. It’s more like a Matthew Brady photo, it’s an image on top of an image. I’m working with a much more instantaneous light, it’s more de Kooning or Sargent.
DS: You mean you only have one go?
AK: For the sketches, yes. Because it’s changing so fast. What I do is after I do one, I look at it and wait and do another. I wait a day and then the next day I’ll do it at the same time, 8.30, whatever it is, and I’ll paint another painting. And then I’ll put it against the first painting and paint a third painting sometimes if I need it. Each one different. Then you go through all of them or you try to figure out which one really is the one that would be the most interesting to blow up.
DS: What is the usual size of the sketches?
AK: Nine by twelve inches. This is basically because it’s great for speed.
DS: And what are they? Oil on paper or…?
AK: Oil on masonite, with a gesso ground.
DS: You’ll never use watercolour or gouache?
AK: No, watercolour’s just too slow for me.
DS: The final paintings are always done indoors, then?
AK: Yes, not in front of the subject matter. The sketches and drawings, it’s an indirect procedure to get to the big canvas and the colours are premixed the day before and on a lot of them I have to get specific brushes for specific strokes. And the brushes are laid out. When I have to do a branch I have a specific brush that will do the branch. And the strokes, it’s a wet-in-wet procedure. So you paint, like in May, where the whole canvas is painted white and then I have to have the perfect brush to make those long black lines. You’re putting it into white paint so you have to put that stroke down exactly the way it’s going to be. You can have a slight area where it can go this way or that way, but not too much. And you have to have a brush with the right amount of paint on it. And that’s an eight-foot line you’re making, so you have to have a lot of control.
DS: I imagine you don’t look at the sketch very much while you’re doing the painting.
AK: Not too much, I’m looking at the painting that has a drawing on it. But I do like, if I have one with a face, I may take the drawing up. I’ll make a finished drawing of the people and I’ll use that for reference. But on the big ones, in constructing an armature for a painting, then the marks become unconscious. I mean, you put like it’s soup, you know, 25 per cent of green marks, 30 per cent less, 15 per cent more. It’s not that this mark will look good here, it’s a much more generalized way of painting.
DS: There is always, then, in your work an attempt to capture the optical?
AK: Well, yes. In the very early fifties I used a lot of photos. It was nostalgia and I would paint them the same way. They looked optical but they’re not. Optical, I would say, almost always; unconscious, I would say, always. It’s a perceptual manner of painting that’s the constant factor.
DS: So although there’s a very high degree of abstraction in your work, you do not invent at the expense of the optical?
AK: Yes, people say painting’s real and abstract. Everything in paint that’s representational is false because it’s not representational, it’s paint. We speak different languages and have different syntax. The way I paint, realistic is out of abstract painting as opposed to abstract style. So I use a line, a form and a colour. So my contention is that my paintings are as realistic as Rembrandt’s. Now, that’s supposed to be realistic, but I don’t see those dark things around it, I don’t see those dark things anywhere. It was realistic painting in its time. It’s no longer a realistic painting. Realism’s a variable. For an artist, this is the highest thing an artist can do – to make something that’s real for his time, where he lives. But people don’t see it as realistic, they see it as abstract. But for me it’s realistic. I mean, do those Impressionist paintings actually look realistic? You open Pandora’s box when you start off with that. Then you say, Well, then what is realistic? Then I say, Well, maybe my things are as realistic as the next guy’s. Giacometti is very realistic, but for his time and place. It’s not very realistic in my time and place. It has nothing to do with the quality of the art, it’s the quality of the vision. And when paintings somehow are no longer realistic, they often become great, great art.
DS: You never seem to have been tempted into that halfway house into which a lot of artists have retreated from both sides of the road – that halfway house between the optical and the abstract.
AK: Thank you. When you say the paintings are abstract and figurative, that’s exactly what I was driving at.
DS: When you and I first met nearly forty years ago, it was in rather an Abstract Expressionist context, where socially you seemed very much accepted and at ease, but obviously you were totally contradicting the aesthetic mores that were accepted there. You didn’t see painting as an act of self-discovery but a discovery of the world.
AK: Well, it’s both, for me. You discover yourself: as I said earlier, you discover parts of yourself. And you try to paint out of those things. No society was suitable actually for where I was. In the Abstract Expressionist society everything was sort of accepted. So, whatever you did it was anything goes. So it was okay because anything goes, but I think basically most of the early stuff was patronized. People would say, ‘Hey, that’s a nice painting’, and that wasn’t exactly my intention. When I started to make the figures on the flat grounds, then some people started disliking it. That was a real rupture with the crowd.
DS: Which paintings were those?
AK: The figures on flat grounds, like the Paul Taylor and Ada with the White Dress, and then I really had people who didn’t like the paintings.
DS: That must have been rather a release then, rather good?
AK: Well, it was like the biggest kick in the whole painting thing. You’d been doing things for years and then all of a sudden you take a bigger risk and go out further, and you had no idea whether this idea you had in your head would make any sense to anybody, and then all of a sudden you engage people in a violent way and you realize you did and I was really on my way at that point.
DS: Have there been painters around whose work was an encouragement or a help to yours?
AK: No. I felt there were a lot of painters I was being influenced by but not encouraged by.
DS: Who, for example? Fairfield Porter?
AK: No, I liked Pollock a lot in the early days and I liked Rothko and Kline and I admired Fairfield’s work too, that’s later on. But I think painting has to come from the place that you live. It’s a social act, and a painter works from other painters somehow.
DS: Well, have you noticed that though there are great writers who have developed alone living in some village, there haven’t been any great painters who matured outside a city where there were other painters? Painters migrate to be together – in Florence, in Siena, in Rome, in Paris. It’s extraordinary the degree to which it’s a social activity.
AK: Because you do things and people contradict you, and then you listen a bit and you might change a little bit, but I thought that I was very lucky to be born where I was, and grow up where I was, to go from the provincial American world into this worldly American world. It just happened when I got out of art school. I just stepped right into it. But it was all the people around you, talking, because you’re in a provincial world one day and then all of a sudden you’re not in that world any more, you’re trying to catch up and find out what it’s about. And you met me at that time.
DS: But you were also wanting to work in a European context when you tried to get that Fullbright grant in 1952?
AK: Well, European paintings change as you see American painting. Because after I saw Pollock then I said, Hey, Tintoretto’s really terrific. And Fragonard is wonderful. You know, after you see Pollock and de Kooning, Fragonard becomes terrific. You look at different things. You’re involved in different painting through the modern painting. For me it was similar in poetry, I had a much better understanding of Byron after I’d read Kenneth Koch. And thinking about what de Kooning was involved in leads you to Rubens, and then I saw Rubens in the Louvre when I was around thirty-five or so, and I was very impressed with the energy of those Rubenses and of the Rubenses in Vienna. And I liked Veronese very much. It isn’t Baroque but it is all-over, a great all-over painter. I realized to go into the big painting – the very large figurative painting – was an area no one was in, and you had to have things generalized to get a really strong picture. And I did the flowers after the first attempts, The Cocktail Party and the Lawn Party, and they’re areas I don’t think anyone has been in much in the twentieth century. I had to look for references in the eighteenth century and earlier. When I saw the Veroneses they made a lot of sense for the all-over stuff and the Rubenses. So that was the start of the interest in Baroque painting. The interest in Tintoretto wasn’t so much interest in Baroque, it was gestural. I was at the Berlin Museum and the favourite painting was the Tintoretto portrait, because there’s just about no colour and just about no form and there’s a real person there and everything is there with hardly any means. I think Tintoretto portraits are just absolutely extraordinary. There’s a great one in the Met that looks like a dish rag. A great painting.
DS: In evolving a figurative language in our time, what have been your great difficulties?
AK: Well, there’s two parts. One is areas of doubt. Through all the early paintings the areas of doubt were in the use of flat colour. In the landscapes of the fifties they had to do with whether they were contemporary or not. And when I got to the flat figures it was whether they were anything or not. I had a lot of doubt. Then I had a lot of technical problems because I’m not trained to do what I was doing. I had to learn it. Particularly with the figure compositions there was nothing. There were no guides for me. I had to figure how to do it myself. So the pictures have a lot of energy but they’re really rough. I had to work it out. And by the time I worked it out and got better – like Thursday Night (Plate 4) is a lot better than Lawn Party – it’s no longer that interesting. The difficulties were those. And the big heads were a big difficulty too, painting a realistic painting on that scale. Edwin Denby told me: ‘I think you’re going the wrong way.’ But then he said also: ‘I’m usually wrong when I advise artists.’
DS: And where did he think you were going the wrong way?
AK: I was doing heads in a smaller size, they had perfect balance for a while. The pictures were coming out great and I started to go into these larger heads where I didn’t have perfect balance and the pictures were coming out real rough. So when I moved into those large heads I really didn’t know how to do them. And so I would just paint them direct and then the proportions and scale weren’t developed and then it took a couple of years to work out a way where I could have a grasp on it. I had to change my techniques.
DS: What changes did you have to make?
AK: Well, I had to go from direct painting to indirect painting. I used to paint right on the spot. Like most of the stuff in the mid-fifties I’d just go out and paint a painting and the next day I’d do another one. That kind of painting. Very direct. Then when I did The Red Smile I did sketches, small sketches, and then I did a painting thirty by forty and then I did the big painting. So by the time I was painting the big painting I had some ideas what I was doing. But by the time I got into the seventies I was also doing very finished drawings, so I had more information, and I could do more complicated things.  I started using preparation with drawings and I used to draw on paper and pounce it, by about ’64, ’65, and make cartoons. So basically I ended up working like an old master and I’d started out painting off the top of my head like Jackson Pollock. It was a big change. You just did it step by step. You know, something didn’t work, you just tried to figure out how to get it to go. And you know, you learn. Because I remember I thought the early Monet paintings with the people in the gardens were just terrific. Then when I saw them analysed in terms of gesture and composition they were just art school. He never did anything. Just like you put people in the corners to turn the corners, they were really kind of rudimentary compositions and the people are totally static. And with Manet, who I think is the most interesting painter of that time, with two people it’s nothing; it’s just like a still life, the relationship between them. And then you start looking at Watteau and Rembrandt and Giotto, then you start thinking of developed relationships and gestures.
DS: And if Giotto, what about Piero?
AK: I like Piero a lot in the early fifties and actually I kept trying to get a Fulbright to go to Italy to see his paintings. I love the Baptism in the National Gallery. The details in the background seem so brand-new-looking, like someone could have done it today. I like his casting of characters. I think of casting someone to make that face. It’s a sensational invention. But I haven’t thought about Piero in years. A lot of the gestures are almost like commedia dell’arte gestures, really traditional gestures. They relate to the static quality in a gesture. Like Jacques Louis David’s, which are very very clear, they are very decisive – clear in what they are supposed to be as gestures. I am very conscious of trying to make gestures very clear. If you make a standing person, it’s supposed to relate to all of the standing figures in art, and you look for new gestures like someone’s smoking a cigarette. When I saw the David with the three swords I thought of three guys with cigarette lighters and a woman with a cigarette. That’s what it looked like to me. And you can see the transferral of the idea. And I think Piero is like David, making clear gestures that communicate.
DS: I certainly see in your work a search for clarity of gesture and I also believe I see another search for something found in Piero and David among others, which is a search for ideal facial beauty. I think that, while your images of faces are very specific, tend to convey the feeling that they aren’t invented but belong to particular people, they also seem to me to be intended to create a canon of ideal beauty, as Piero’s do. I sense that very strongly in paintings such as The Red Band (Plate 5) and Face of a Poet.
AK: I don’t know what the word ‘ideal’ is, but it is a search for beauty and I think the paintings are involved with that. And I said it in the book I wrote that the Egyptian artist Tuthmose is the model for me. Because you live in the city where there is a value on elegance and beauty and that’s like one of the things I’m involved with. I think some people find it hard to accept that as being art – elegance and beauty – they want to see social messages, suffering, inner expression, all of those things which I’m not interested in.
DS: So if I see in your work a desire to create paragons of beauty, I’m not seeing something which is unconscious?
AK: Well, no, it’s conscious. The Face of a Poet is also like a big movie screen, it’s like a glamorous Hollywood star. It’s a complicated symbol, it has multiple readings. Well, of course, it’s that person who is beautiful. Anne Waldman is a poet, she is beautiful. She’s also high-style bohemian and you see that too.
DS: By the way, I do mean beauty, and also glamour; I don’t mean sexiness.
AK: It can be sensuous but not sexy. Once you have sexy you have problems with beauty and you have problems with glamour.
DS: And maybe it was the greatness of the Hollywood still photographers of the 1930s that they didn’t go for sexiness?
AK: No. It was more for glamour and beauty.
DS: Why is it that you’ve done so little with the nude?
AK: Well, I have done nudes; I haven’t shown many of them. I haven’t done a lot, though. And one of the reasons is, I think, that you don’t deal with them in a civilized form, clothed, you deal with them in a less styled form. And the other thing is I always wanted to do nudes with a nontraditional concept and I’ve done a couple but they haven’t been seen. But mostly it has to do with that it’s a more generalized time-frame. Because I want to get out there in the exact minute I live in, in terms of the artefacts and so on. (The landscapes are in a more generalized time-frame).
DS: It is true that on the beach a girl with a bikini is much more of her time than a topless girl.
AK: A topless girl could be of any time.
DS:  being as steeped in European art as you are, you’ve never actually felt tempted to work in Europe, have you?
AK: No. No, I haven’t. As they say about New York, it’s a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. No, I never wanted to work outside New York. I like working in New York. I could conceive of painting in Los Angeles. I was in Paris, I guess, for three weeks. That’s a long period for me and I didn’t feel like doing any art work and I didn’t miss it. It just didn’t seem interesting to me. If I was forced to live there I guess I could do it, but it isn’t a place I would want to go to paint.
DS: Is this because of the spiritual and social climate of New York being very sympathetic or is it also very much, or even more, that incredible light of New York which does seem to be very much related to the kind of light in your paintings?
AK: I don’t know whether it’s the light. I think it’s the subject matter that turns me on. The people in New York turn me on, the way they wear clothes, etc., their gestures and their clothes, it’s specific and I like that. And I like working in Maine because the light is so beautiful, it’s completely different to European light. And you have a kind of social freedom in Maine that I wouldn’t have in Europe. Maine is sort of really live and let live. It’s very uncivilized, it’s beer cans all over the place, people do whatever they want to do. It’s not at all socialized.
DS: We talked about light. Do you always paint by daylight or by nightlight as well?
AK: Well, my paintings are of all different lights and, since the process is empirical, I have to paint at night to paint a night painting, but when I paint the large paintings they’re just from sketches and I do that at daylight.
DS: And the portraits?
AK: Well, the same thing. If it’s a nightlight I’ll paint the sketches at night, but the finished paintings are always by day.
DS: And if you get to the end of the day and the light is going, you will wait till tomorrow; you won’t put on the electric light?
AK: Definitely no. I will not put on the electric light unless it’s a totally freak situation.
DS: And you always have worked by daylight?
AK: Yes, I’ve always had studios with daylight.
DS: And do you like to have the paintings exhibited by daylight?
AK: Daylight’s the best place for them, yes. Daylight’s ideal for my paintings.
Interview recorded on March 15 and March 16, 1997.