“I’m not painting for people two hundred years from now; I'm painting for people now”. 200% meets one of America’s leading artists who is trying to get his paintings into the present tense.
The eye-catcher of Alex Katz’s latest show at Timothy Taylor in London is an almost 3,5 metres tall sculpture of his wife Ada. It is a single line drawing of her face in profile made of mirror polished stainless steel. The sculpture is flat and has no volume, but still you treat it as a three-dimensional object as you walk around it to observe it from different angles.
The sculpture is a translation of Katz’s signature style of large figurative paintings of close ups of people’s faces inspired by television, cinema and billboard images. Each time I encounter a figurative painting by Katz at an art fair, a museum or a gallery, it uplifts me and I am intrigued by its distinct flatness of form and low contrasts. The paintings are seductive, immediate and fresh, as if painted yesterday.
The close ups are not included in this show, rather, a number of large autumnal landscape paintings, a selection of Katz’s ‘Subway Drawings’ and Ada herself. She sits on a chair reading the ‘Financial Times’ while her husband is being interviewed in one of the downstairs offices of the gallery. Mrs Katz is the artist’s favourite model and he has painted her more than 200 times. She and I have a brief chat until her husband arrives. He is a bald, brisk 90-year old, easy going man and speaks English with a heavy American accent.
In the 1940s, Katz was an art student at Cooper Union, New York. On his way to art school he made drawings of subway passengers. He had to draw fast as he couldn’t anticipate when the passengers would leave the carriage or new passengers would board the carriage and change the composition. When I ask him if the ‘Subway Drawings’ might have been a good exercise for his working method of drawing and painting very fast in order to paint in the here and now – he shrugs his shoulders and answers “I don’t know”.
“Within figurative painting I wanted to make a new painting from immediate perception”, he answers when I ask him if he remembers what he was after when he started with painting. Like most young artists, Katz wanted to rebel against the generation before him: the Abstract Expressionists with Pollock and Rothko and the School of Paris with Matisse, Picasso and Miro. “I wanted to make a painting that would stand up to all of them”, he says. “One of the reasons the Abstract Expressionists made large paintings was because the French didn’t. Making large figurative paintings inspired by images of television, movies and billboards; seems like no one was doing it”.Alex Katz: “I wanted to make a painting that would stand up to all of them [Rothko, Pollock, Picasso]”.
Katz also didn’t believe in the nineteenth century myth that a painter paints and he won’t be recognised for 200 years to come. “I’m not painting for people two hundred years from now, I’m painting for people now”, he explains. “I’m trying to get the paintings into the present tense. Eternity only exists in the present tense. There is no past, there is no future – there is only the here and now”.Alex Katz: “I’m trying to get the paintings into the present tense.
As eternity only exists in the present tense is that also the reason why his old paintings still look so contemporary? “Who knows? If you hit it right it might last, I don’t know. They use timeless on me, but timeless is an absolute state and I don’t believe in absolute states because everything is subject to fashion and fashion changes. Just like you change your clothes, your values about art change. [Art] books tell you that this great work is a great work forever and I don’t believe in that. Some work just has a longer shelf life. I hope my work has a long shelf life but it is subject to fashion, it keeps changing”.
Katz is now the same age as the artist Hokusai, the Japanese artist, who worked until his death at 90 years old. He believed that the older he got, the better his art became. Does Katz believe that too? “That is the challenge. I’m technically better than I was. I can take more chances because I have more experience. I’m reaching for the moon”. He does admit that he has less stamina now than at forty years old. I’m flabbergasted, though with the good physical condition that he is still in when he points at ‘Two Trees’ which took him three hours to paint – a work measuring 304.8 by 243.8 cm.
It is delightful to conduct an interview with an artist in front of his or her work. You can walk up to the work and ask about specific details, but it can be problematic when there are visitors in the gallery. With a foremost artist like Alex Katz, visitors will bluntly interrupt the interview to either compliment him on his show or even want to take a selfie with him. Interview time will be lost, but fortunately due to Katz’s concise answers, I was able to discuss the topics I wanted to discuss with him. I have one last question I want to ask, before he goes to lunch with his wife: why he painted her in excess of 200 times? “She is a great model and has great proportions – a classic American beauty”, he explains. “Her elegance and sophistication comes from the many movies that she went to and she has subconsciously picked up those gestures. She doesn’t make a bad gesture”.
When I observed her slowly folding the newspaper, gracefully rising up from her chair, elegantly putting on her coat and walking with her husband out of the gallery door, I noted that Katz was right.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers
Alex Katz, 3 October – 18 November 2017, Timothy Taylor London
Alex Katz, Three Trees, Oil on linen, 2017 © Courtesy Alex Katz / Timothy Taylor; Alex Katz, Ada (Outline), 2017, Mirror polished stainless steel on absolute black granite base with suede finish 136 × 45 × 24 in. 345.4 × 114.3 × 61 cm © Alex Katz / DACS, London / VAGA, New York Courtesy Timothy Taylor; Alex Katz, Subway Scene Couple, c. 1940s Pen 4 7/8 x 7 7/8 inches © Alex Katz / DACS, London / VAGA, New York Courtesy Timothy Taylor 16×34; Alex Katz, Crowd on Subway, c. 1940s Pen 4 7/8 x 7 7/8 inches © Alex Katz / DACS, London / VAGA, New York Courtesy Timothy Taylor 16×34; Alex Katz, Two Trees, 2015, Oil on linen, 120 x 96 inches © Courtesy Alex Katz / Timothy Taylor.