Alex Katz In Conversation: On Process, Monochrome and Nude Models

Alex Katz

Artlyst had the pleasure of joining the American Artist Alex Katz, on the eve of the opening of his latest show ‘Black Paintings,’ at the Timothy Taylor Gallery, in London, last week. This also featured a talk with the Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, Iwona  Blazwick and a Q&A session which we will be publishing next week.

On process:

First, I paint sketches quickly from life, which take about an hour and a half. They are not very fast and not very accurate. They are refined, enlarged into sketches onto a piece of paper that’s placed on the canvas and then I use both sources of information to work on the drawing. Sometimes when things go wrong they aren’t right as drawings but make the paintings livelier. I try to get away with as many of those things to make the paintings livelier. I then use a rolette something like they cut pizza with to cut patterns.  Then I perforate the paper, push pigment through, take the paper off and draw it and then it gets refined a little more.  And then when it dries, I mix up my colours in advance. A lot of this is wet on wet paint,  I put a layer down and put paint into it and so you mix it in a way that it isn’t exactly going to come out and then I lay out the brushes for the areas: almost 4 or 5 inch brushes for the background and the brushes get smaller as I get to the faces and the smallest brushes for the details. And then with them all laid out , I start painting the next day. I start at 10 in the morning and just go through and they go pretty quickly as it’s all prepared.  It’s a little out of control and although the colours are quite thin, the colour varies from the mixed colour to the canvas, which has to do with the inflection of the paint. With the skin tones, if you make it thicker it would be chalky and these are very transparent. The canvases have 6 coats of paint under them. They are very white. Commercial canvases are grey and do not allow the light to come through and for the kind of light that I want, I need 6 coats underneath.

 On choice of monochrome:

The styling of the paintings have to do with the flat backgrounds and come from Kline and Rothko where the flat colour opens up to an atmosphere. I contrasted that with specific details. The first ones were mostly white and grey and the blacks go way back in my paintings of backgrounds.

On composition:

When I started with the big faces in the early 60s it was to make something that had a lot of projection, with as much energy coming off the surfaces like in a De Kooning or Kline. And I found that if you enlarged the head so that they project from that little box, into the room, the backgrounds were all light and looking at the face with light on it and looking at the background and the tone is dark grey and so I transposed that to red. The light backgrounds are sort of an abstract in space and the flat areas open up.

If you have eyes on your level you think of the figures as being life size and I used cut outs. I cut the figures out and the whole thing was life size and all things are arbitrary and invention so I started making cut outs and slicing heads and had a lot of fun. So these are part of the same idea.  You have a couple of ideas and make variations on them for the rest of your life.

I’m not interested in psychological paintings it has to do with appearance.  In the 60s I started to do relationships with people how they touch each other . Men and women touching , men and men touching, women touching women and then I got bored with the idea and went on and then I got interested in the idea of collaging things and these people meld together and then I started fooling around with them until they looked interesting. This was the main thing.

On Nude Models

I was asked to do a show in New Zealand and they wanted something different so I said I haven’t done any nudes for a few years let’s get them together and show you.  There were a couple of good paintings and the rest were OK.  So I thought I’d better do some more nudes.  There was a man I know who was like a lothario and he was sending me all his girlfriends.  One was a model or an actress or something and she was very happy posing and I was very happy painting her.  All models are done from life and they sit in front of me and talk.

On lighting:

Lighting is with spots on the faces.  This is what I was doing 40 or 50 years ago with flat figures all front lit.  The front light loses a lot of details and you get a lot of projection so I wanted something to project quick. With the front light losing a lot of details the paintings come off the wall really quick.

On Photography:

The most interesting paintings now come from photographs, directly from photographs. I’m involved with photography but not in competing with photography.  And trying to do what photographs can’t do.  I think photographs are generally past tense and we have an advantage with painting that it is present tense.

On Minimalism:

Minimal is taking things out and my paintings are reductive actually and although they look like minimalism there is something in the air of similarity. there are currents of fashion in art and everything else.  Fashion has to do with change and not progress. If you get tired of a dress above the knees you wear one to the floor just like that. Painting is under the same pressure and the move away from the all over painting of Pollock and De Kooning with a more reductive or minimal look.

Words: Alex Katz Photo: P C Robinson @ artlyst 2015 Transcribed by Sara Faith


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