Katz’s Eye
by Annaliese Jakimides

For over 50 years, Alex Katz, one of America’s most significant artists, has marked the beginning of summer by trading New York City for Lincolnville, where he paints just as intensely as he does when he’s in the city. In the early days Katz worked in the small blue studio attached to the even smaller bright yellow house that sits close to the road. These days, summer finds him working on his paintings—sometimes in huge muralistic sizes—in a high-ceilinged, 50 foot by 30 foot studio in the woods by a lake, 180 feet from the house.
Katz grew up in a home in which art hung on the walls and his mother recited poems, he recalls, “in five or six languages.” His block in Queens had 24 houses of disparate second-generation families “connected only by the price of the houses.” By the time he was 14 or 15, most of the neighborhood kids were firmly entrenched working for their fathers or building careers.
Katz went to trade school and then Cooper Union (a prestigious NYC college for artists, architects, and engineers that is free to accepted students). When he was offered a scholarship to attend a summer program at Yale or the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, he chose Skowhegan. His attachment to Maine was forged.
Katz’s enormous body of work contains paintings, cartoons, collages, cutouts; the subjects can be nature, fashion, portraits—large, small, cropped, compressed. He has designed costumes and sets for plays and dance troupes, and collaborated with poets like John Ashbery and Robert Creeley. His son, Vincent, is a poet.
Once you’ve seen a Katz, particularly the iconic huge portraits, you will be able to recognize one anywhere: Both intimate and distant, flat and popping, they are in your face. And you’ll recognize his wife, Ada, whom he has drawn and painted ever since they met in 1957. He has crafted an entire exhibition, Alex Katz Paints Ada, around her image. It is amazing how little a person can change.
With over 200 solo exhibitions since 1954, his work is part of the permanent collections of many institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian.
In 1996 Colby College in Waterville became the largest repository of Katz’s work in the world—with over 700 pieces, plus writings, reviews, and books. Decades ago, Katz destroyed about a thousand paintings. (“There didn’t seem much reason to keep them. The positive thing was what I got out of the painting, not the paintings.”) In addition to being firmly embedded in the artistic and cultural landscape, the work is now protected, although he does admit he’s been known to call a painting back to change the color of the sky or cut off the bottom.
Did you draw when you were young?
I’d sort of draw. I got a big prize actually when I was in second grade. They gave me a gold medal for some drawing I didn’t understand. Monkeys fighting snakes in a tree. I couldn’t get the drawing to do what I wanted. I thought them giving me the prize was a mistake.
You went to a vocational high school, a trade school.
I did. My parents didn’t want me on the train to Manhattan every day and I didn’t want an academic high school. So I went to Woodrow Wilson. I drew from the antique every day [cast replicas of antique sculpture] and I found out that if I worked hard at something, I could get better. It never occurred to me before. I spent three years doing casts. They let you do whatever you wanted. You could get an 80 if you were reasonably bright and stayed awake. The school was mostly into dancing and clubs, fashion, music. Style was in the air.
Wow, that was the right place.
It is how I see.
When did you have a sense of being an artist who could accomplish something?
When I got into Cooper Union. Only 5% get in, and to go from Woodrow Wilson to Cooper Union was spectacular. Then I found out I tested near the top. It was absolutely shocking to me. I felt I never did anything right, and if I could get into that school, it’s going to be flat out. I drew around the clock. I drew in the subways. I drew in cafeterias. I just drew. I got so much better from the time I went in to the time I got out. I figured give me 20 years and I’ll make some real art!
It didn’t take 20 years, though.
No, it was much quicker. But my first five shows were commercial flops. I just kept getting more aggressive with the styling and finally I went into no man’s land when I did the figures on the flat background in the late ’50s. When I had a show of those, people really hated me. And people really liked me.
Why did the work get so large?
For one, no one’s been there. I’m interested in painting new paintings. And it was a hostile act—I wanted to take a Newman or de Kooning and knock it off the wall. They’re both fabulous painters. There was a thing about abstract art being correct and you can’t make figurative paintings to compete. It’s not as serious. It’s not as heroic. It’s not as muscular. I said, “Yeah, let’s have a shot at it.”
Did you ever have any interest in abstract work?
No, not really. You see something, and it’s like a real blast, what you’re looking at. I just wanted to paint that sensation I see.
You’ve spent about three months out of every year in Lincolnville for over 50 years. Did discovering Maine shape your work?
The light is richer. And I like that you can just be a painter. It’s not weird here. Like a plumber, a carpenter, you’re a painter. A plumber came over to me once. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years. He said, “You still painting, Alex?” I said, “I try to keep my hand in it.” That’s what I mean.
The work is very aggressive.
You’re right. It is. But the subject matter contradicts it. It’s stupid or passive, uninteresting. But the image making is extremely aggressive. The idea is an aggressive idea.
When you paint a landscape that’s 12 feet by 16 feet, do you paint that in one rush?
Yeah, just wet paint. It’s an inner rhythm. They’re technically all worked out. I put like a green right across the whole painting. Then I put the second color into that and the third into that. So the paint gets very fluid. It takes about three months before it sets in. It’s the way they do schlock art on the street.
You say your figure paintings aren’t about stories. What are they about then?
Basically it’s about appearance. It goes like this: We see culturally. If you think you see through the eyes, you can only see through the eyes of the culture you live in. The culture you live in sees through art that’s 30, 40 years behind. My idea is to come into the present.
Seeing in the present is a struggle.
Yeah, it’s a struggle for me, too. You’re held back by conventions from the past. And different people see paintings completely different. An innocent—a person who hasn’t had too much education—sees one painting and he likes it; the dealer sees a completely different painting; the painter sees another painting; an institutional person sees another painting; a critic sees another painting. They’re all looking at a different painting.
What is the thing you value most in your work? You’re most proud of?
My surface. It’s one of the more original things a painter can do. It’s not in your face. It’s a recessive part of the painting. People don’t even notice it unless they’re painters. Painters can look at it, and I say, “Eat your heart out.”
How does love factor in your work?
[He laughs.] I decided early on I didn’t want any part of ironic art, and love can’t be ironic, right?