Alex Katz: Still An Awe Inspiring Bundle Of Energy At 87

Alex Katz © Artlyst

Artlyst’s Ilka Scobie talks to one of the world’s most influential artists about his upcoming London exhibition and other stuff!

As we approach the Soho loft of Alex Katz, Ada, his beautiful wife (and his most documented portrait subject) is busting out of the cast-iron building into the winter cold for some local food shopping.  Alex greets us at the elevator entrance of the large sunfilled space where they have lived since 1968. On display is a season’s worth of work that any artist would envy. At 87, Alex is awe-inspiring in his energy, and a familiar figure as he strides downtown streets at a determined clip.

We begin discussing his upcoming and very busy schedule. Known for his cool classic realism, Katz revolutionized the concept of the portrait.

“I’m going to London for a show at Timothy Taylor Gallery. It’s a very elegant, low-key gallery, and my long time gallery.  I’m going to be showing black paintings with faces on the sides. All portraits. We’ll stay in London for four days.” The show, his seventh solo exhibition with the gallery opens 28 February.

When I ask about the work, Alex replies, “The paintings are already in London. England exploded for me because of the room of landscapes I did at the Tate, which was there for a year. And they had that fantastic Malevich show there.”

When I ask about jet lag, Alex smiles. “Luckily, it doesn’t happen.”

After London, there will be an Alex Katz night at Lincoln Center, with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. “I’m designing their sets. It’s on March 11. Then I’m doing the windows at Barney’s.” (One of New York’s premier Madison Avenue department stores.)

“Barney’s showed me the Roy Lichtenstein project, where he did a great big Frisbee in the window. What I’m doing is putting big drawings in the window. So all their selling space will be gone. It’s outrageous; I’m designing knick-knacks. Dishes, a bag with a flower on it.”

Since leaving Pace Gallery, Alex’s already stellar career seems to have a renewed burst of energy.

“It really took off. I’m having a show at Gavin Brown in May. Years ago, I was in a three-man show at Gavin Brown on Broome Street with Elizabeth Peyton and Andy Warhol. So I know him from when he started out. He’s a very perceptive art dealer.”

I have been specifically asked to send regards from a young artist friend, Stefan Bondell whose work Alex has recently purchased. I comment on how influential his work has been to many of the young artists I know.

“There’s a lot of interesting painting going on right now. I have a foundation that buys paintings and gives them to museums. I buy work from artists of all ages.”

For years, Alex, a native New Yorker, has summered in Lincolnville, Maine.  It’s where he paints many of his landscapes. He always works seven days a week. When asked for secrets of his vitality, he says, “ A lot of it is generic. You take care of yourself.”

Talk drifts to a recent New York Times story about corruption in the New York gallery world. “There’s an old saying…. Artists are fakes and galleries are crooks.”

And when I comment that no names have been exposed yet, he adds, “It’s a question of getting caught.”

Alex continues, “I don’t like politics. When I first voted, my mother said, The only reason you are voting is to see how the voting machine works.”

Alex’s son, poet, curator and critic Vincent, and his photographer and filmmaker wife, Vivien Bittencourt are parents to teenage twin boys. Alex tells us, “I did portraits of them when they were five or six, and then again, a year ago. I do one at a time, then put them together in one big painting.” He also mentions painting Christy Turlington. “She is definitely not generic, she’s fantastic.”

We go into Alex’s spacious and serene studio. There’s a gorgeous series of pencil drawings of a dancer in leotard, some portraits and an amazing selection of large landscapes.  The conversation drifts to poetry readings, mutual artist friends and Soho itself.

It’s almost noon, and the cold winter light floods Alex’s studio. “I have a great place,” he says, and I can’t help wondering how many artists still really live and work in this once industrial area that has transformed into one of the city’s chicest neighbourhoods. We are dressing for the February chill, wrapping up in scarves and bulky coats, as Ada returns with a full shopping bag. These days, it’s no easy feat to trudge through the icy streets with groceries. We leave Alex to return to his studio, an extraordinary artist continuing an ordinary working day.

Words: Ilka Scobie with Alex Katz  

Photo © Artlyst

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