Alex Katz On Black Backgrounds and His Relationship With Poetry

Alex Katz

Artlyst met up with the American Artist Alex Katz, on the eve of the opening of his latest show ‘Black Paintings,’ at the Timothy Taylor Gallery, in London. A talk with the Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, Iwona  Blazwick and the artist took place with a Q&A session. Here is the interview.

On Black Backgrounds:

The black seems to mean different things to different people.  To me it was so much light in the front and dark in the back.  Black is technically a very difficult colour to handle so that was a challenge and with the older black paintings I had some perfect surfaces and with these I don’t think I got perfect surfaces but they’re all different. Every time I was fooling around trying to get the perfect surface I didn’t want to do it like I did before. I thought they were pretty successful.

On Subjects

When I went to art school, I went to a modern art school, which is very strange at this point, and the teacher said an impressionism book had just come out and I was very naïve at the time and I thought it was terrific. Impressionism is the sunny side of life and my paintings are the sunny side of life. I get criticized for painting very rich fancy people all the time. But the style is elegant. The idea was to make figurative painting look new and to try and work with what you’re seeing. You have to have a narrative to paint what you see.

When I was 16 there was another artist in the same block in the suburb in Queens. He was 2 years older and really good and he wanted to be a commercial artist.  We cycled 20 miles to find his motif and make a painting in watercolour.  We went home and showed my father who said to him, ‘you’ll make a great commercial artist’ (and he was) it was absolutely fabulous and my father looked at mine and it was awful and he said,  ‘you’re gonna have to be a fine artist’.  Then he compounded it by saying why don’t you paint your own back yard.  I always had a dislike for my father because he was a lot smarter than I was.  But I always say don’t be afraid of painting your own backyard.  The people I see is like the backyard.

On his Relationship with poetry

The art world is a very visual existential world.  The interesting paintings like Barnett Newman and Clifford Still just seemed like baloney. I liked the paintings but couldn’t stand the rhetoric. The poets were doing similar things than I was working with everyday things in a sophisticated way and were much more interesting to me.  I was drifting out of the art world in the 1960s and the poets were Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Jimmy Schuyler and they liked my work and I liked them.  In the 70s I picked up and another crowd came in and they were interesting too and my son started off with poetry books and he got me into it primarily.

On listening to Music while working

I use it as a shield against the outside signs so I’m not really listening to it. At the moment, I have a Machito record. He was Afro Cuban from Puerto Rico there is one song and I was young when we went dancing to him called, he had a big fat sister that sang no no no for five minutes and drove the audience wild. So it’s on a record and I listed to Machito to hear her sing.

Questions from the audience:

Artlyst Editor Paul Carter Robinson asked; “Who were your influences”?  “Who were you looking at”?

Painting is not made alone in a garret.  It’s made from people around you and everything else.  In Modern Art, it believes you can only work from the immediate past and that is the only way you can have progress.  That idea was inadequate to me for I wanted to do. I always liked older painting and older things.  The greatest artist to me is the guy who did Nefertiti – Thutmose. He is my all time favourite.  His modeling is like Raphael and his line is like gesture and substance.  If you have just a line it doesn’t have the substance.  It’s like the difference between Mondrian and Van Doesburg – van Doesburg is gestural and Mondrian is about substance.  My grammar comes from abstract painting.  I’ve always liked Mondrian but his ideas for me were limited to his time.  In other words his ideas were like Communism, Fascism there all the same thing. They believe in absolute values and that’s gone.

Matisse is one of my all time favourites. Technically Matisse is one of the great painters from the last 400 years.  The way art is presented to you is that the great masters are from a long time ago like Da Vinci and Raphael. But if I were to measure Matisse against Da Vinci, I’d say that Matisse paints better than Da Vinci. He’s like a fantastic technical painter and the ease in which he paints too. And actually I saw his show when I was in Art school and the teacher said he’s 80 but he’s a pretty good painter.  I couldn’t believe he could paint that well. I fainted and woke up before I hit the floor. The ease that he did all these things got me.  I didn’t know that he did preparation, so for years I was making big mistakes because I was trying to do it directly.

Transcribed by Sara Faith Photo PC Robinson © Artlyst 2015


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