A Chat with the Painter, by DAVID COHEN
A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, September 9, 2004
For Alex Katz, "style is my content." The veteran realist, who turned 77 this summer, opens a new show today at PaceWildenstein in Chelsea of 12 paintings, ten of which are portraits of "power women" in the season's newest outfits.
The series was commissioned by the haute couture magazine, "W," which will showcase them in its October issue, but there is nothing ironic or camp in this "sell-out" to fashion. On the contrary, Mr. Katz has forged a stellar career with art that is style-conscious, glamorous, and high energy while always preserving a sense that life is a breeze-for maker, viewer and subject alike.
For a painter of his ambition and accomplishment, this attitude has often pitted him against his times, although for at least the last decade it has made him the super cool mentor of a new generation of artists in a variety of mediums. These would include the eight young painters in "Contemporary Painting," a show Mr. Katz curated this summer at Colby College, Maine.
For most of his career, though, "styling" has been taboo for serious, "advanced" art. In the late 1940s, when he got started, an existentialist ethic of personal authenticity prevailed, in which the artist-wresting form from his unconscious-was indifferent to beauty and aggesively hostile towards received taste. Formalists made heavy dogma out of historically inevitable shifts in style determined by almost philosophical engagement with form. Conceptual art, like the earlier, politically motivated social realism, brought back the subject with avengeance. Mr. Katz's aesthetic of elegance and finesse flew against all these orthodoxies: "I don't like heaviness of any kind, whether formal or conceptual," he told me. "It was confining, and I wanted to be free."
Mr. Katz was an obvious choice for "W" Magazine to turn to for fearlessly (shamelessly) sauve, energetic, "glossy" images of beauty and fashion. His style-a knowing collision, predating Pop Art, of high and low art forms, plays off the fashion plate as surely as it does the billboard against art historical precedents. His self-portraits read like a visual history of American conceptions of the cool, from the porkpie hat and zoot suit in the Museum of Modern Art's "Passing," (1962-63), or the forcibly vacant aloofness of "Self-Portrait with Sunglasses," (1960), or "Green Jacket," (1989), where art historian Irving Sandler detects a pose somewhere between a renaissance nobleman and a basketball star. He has had a long love affair with female "haute couture," whether painting swimsuits, wedding dresses, or power suits. As often as not he has depicted his bohemian circle in "downtime," chilling at summer garden parties, reading on the beach, but even here there is an equation of character and personal style to recall the rococo "fête champêtre."
His stylish sitters are always supremely comfortable in their clothes, which form a second skin. But the tailor-made fit of Mr. Katz and couture goes beyond a mere interest in clothes as subject matter, rich as they are for a realist astute to social and character detail alike. For this artist, sartorial presentation is as much a metaphor for painting as a motif. Like his own technique, his sitters' wardrobe is at once classy and casual, composed and nonchalent, high energy and cool. And most cool of all, his assertive style never seems precious or affected.
I caught up with him in his last week in Maine, where he and his wife Ada have summered every year since the mid-1950s. I was curious about both his shows-the one of his own show paintings, and his curatorial effort at Colby College, where a wing is devoted to Mr. Katz's work.
"They asked me to curate a show. First they suggested people I thought were influenced by me, but I didn't think that was a good idea. Then they said "emerging artists," but that's impossible when you think about it. Then I thought about a bunch of people who are lively right now. The criterion was that they should be interesting enough that you want to see another show."
Carrying Deer 2002
"They used to say the painting world consisted of 100 people, with people coming in and out. It is basically the same, except that it has gone global."
Which means, of course, that New York talent must be severely diluted, if there are more numbers competing for the same qualifying places, with competition from abroad.
"There are certainly less interesting artists in the US. In the 1950s they were more interesting in New York than elswewhere, but I don't think that's the case now." His line-up is strikingly international, although the majority are based in New York and he didn't set out to be internationalist: Richard Bosman was born in India and grew up in Australia; three have London connections: Cecily Brown; Peter Doig, who was born in Scotland and raised in Canada; and Merlin James, who was born in Wales. The other four-Maureen Cavanaugh, Laura Owen, Elizabeth Peyton and Bill Saylor-are American.
He is unfazed, in a way professional curators often are, about mixing up superstars like Ms. Peyton and Ms. Brown, with relative newcomers like Ms. Cavanaugh, in her twenties, who he met at an opening: "It is nice to have a real novice in the show."
Mr. Katz speaks about his selection as if they elements in a collage: "They fit together. The spaces between painters are as interesting as the painters themselves." Many other names were considered, but invariably there was someone in the final cut working in an overlapping area "who was more proficient."
As a curator myself I'd long thought of a show that brought Mr. James and Ms. Peyton together. Two of the most distinct forces in the current renewal of painting, I could see a connection in terms of wistfulness, a sense of melancholy both in and about painting. But Mr. Katz would have none of that. "I don't really try to think of painting in those terms- optimistic or pessimistic," he says, though he concedes that Mr. James, with his ethereal, near monochrome still lives, has "a down style."
"What people noticed is that the work is brushy, physical," he offers in contrast to any ideas of wistfulness. He wonders how I can see Ms. Brown's splodgy, erotic compositions as "wistful." But isn't there an ironic distance from her own expressive handling, an attitude that recalls the diffident Gerhard Richter. "She paintes better than Gerhard Richter. He has better imagery. Her application is much more refined- the changing tones and colors are very subtle."
Turning to Richard Bosman, I wonder if he isn't playing a game with the convention of "Bad" painting. His images imagine Rembrandt's attitic of props, or Edvard Munch's coat closet, described in a goofey, illustrational style, but with a painterly touch. There is a suggestion of the self-consciously uncouth late paintings of Philip Guston. "Guston is mandarin compared to this guy; this is really slapdash. the energy of the picture is really intense. Drawing seems okay, everything is adequate, but the painting is very unrefined."
What emerges is a breadth of qualities: painting can be refined, or unrefined, and still have quality and liveliness for Mr. Katz. None of the artists in his show make work that looks like his own. Tellingly, all the young painters work from photographs, which Mr. Katz very rarely does, being majorly invested in perception. "It is true, I work from life, but most of the other people who do aren't as interesting as these people. The thing is to make an interesting painting. How you make it doesn't matter much."
He describes Ms. Cavanaugh, whose fey, naïve, thinned washy paintings with pencil drawn details depict skinny young women holding deer, as "Girlie hip, a kind of expressionistic Japanese painting." The term "girlie" might seem politically incorrect, but it emerges that Mr. Katz, as ever, has his ear to the ground: he heard it from a young woman visitor to his studio, who was impressed by his cheery palette, smooth touch and infatuation with finish.
The masculine is often played off against the feminine in Mr. Katz's style, which has in equal strength elements of machismo and the effete. He is a very physical, sporty, dashing man of naturally aristocratic style. In his memoirs he describes his remarkable parents from whom he inherited these attributes. Back in Russia, his mother had been an actress on the Yiddish stage, his father a "playboy" who liked to "ride motorcylces across fields and dive off bridges." When, in St Albans, Queens, his mother was teaching him to recite poetry, his father said "'No more foreign languages,' and sent me out on the streets." His father taught him to single out the best dressed in a group of boys: not the one in a fedora and a suit, but a more casually attired youth. "It was beige and tan, with a shirt and tie,k a haircut and shoes, that all went together. It was a whole idea of style, right there."
The mature Katz found a way to meld together street savviness, fashion consciousness, and the energies and rythms of jazz, dance, and modern poetry.
"I wanted to paint fashion," he says of the latest show. "'W' sent me photos of models to choose from. Then they thought they'd send fashion editors, who are often as beautiful as models anyway. Then they wanted to do power women. They sent the latest clothes from the designers for me to chose from."
But Mr. Katz is no
fashion slave. His eccentric compositions, recalling the Japanese "pillar
prints" in their dimensions (8 ft x 2 ft 9-1/2 inches) are so radically
cropped, flattened and sylized that you'd have to be the keenest conoisseur
to guess the labels. What he does capture, however, is the aura of high
style: his deft brushstrokes form an equivalent to the impeccable cut.
A bigger surprise was the pop singer Alicia Keys. "W" wanted to include women with larger personal following than the artists he painted, who included Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith, and Mariko Mori, so they sent him Martha Stewart and Ms. Keys.
"She realised I didn't know anything about popular culture, that I was out of it, but she was very polite about it. After the sitting, she was leaving to go to Shea stadium. She was about to tour Germany where she had forty shows in forty nights: It's a level you can't believe, but she is an unassuming, pleasant person."
He narrowed the clothes sent by "W" down to five and had the singer's mother make the final choice.
"She gave me a smile and I said, "terrific". A split second thing, but she could return to it. She knew what she looked like. She was like a theater person. She could talk and hold a pose. She is the only one where I went straight to a painting, and didn't have to do a second, corrective drawing. She didn't have the time and I didn't need it. It was the most accurate of the whole bunch, thanks to her."
Dutifully, I asked the dumb journalist question: Did Martha Stewart show the strain of her recent travails? "I didn't think about it. I just tried to paint what I was looking at. She didn't look happy but she did look kind of strong."
I imagined, I said,
that expressive faces are easier to paint than beautiful ones, and I was
right. "There is regular and irregular beauty. With regular beauty,
if you miss just a bit it can be a disaster. Someone can have a large
nose. If you make it too large, she's no longer beautiful, but if you
make it smaller she becomes ordinary. You have to be very precise."