alex katz

Richard Prince: Well, first I have to ask you, why did you want me to interview you? Seems like an unlikely choice.

Alex Katz: You are one of the few artists who can use words interestingly in art works. I assumed that you could make some interesting questions.

Prince: You said the fifties kept the social and philosophical content to a minimum with the emphasis on formal values. You, in a sense, boil down the external world’s information with color, composition, techniques and somehow, at least it seems to me, present the possibility of painting a complete picture. Is this possibility classical or something that could show up on the hit parade? Perhaps "Classic" and "Top Ten" are pretty much the same.

Katz: The idea of a complete picture is neither better or worse than most ideas and it is not newer or older. However, it’s harder to make a new picture that’s a complete picture.

Prince: Generalized, generic, billboard, deadpan, plain speak, early colonial, flatness, all-over . . . I’ve heard these terms describing much of your work, you know, empty of meaning, soft-boiled, soulless, style versus content. Do you ever get tired of the consensus?

Katz: If the same words are repeated by reviewers rewriting reviews, the painting seems as boring as the words.

Prince: The blurring between cartoon and advertising art. Cartoonists have distinctive styles; ad art, a recognizable look. Did you ever stop looking at art and just pay attention to these other visual forms?

Katz: No, but at times billboards, advertisements, and movies seemed better than most paintings.

Prince: What about God-given talents?

Katz: I think there is more lost talent than given talent.

Prince: Your early work seems to be full of that "I don’t give a shit" attitude. You produce an in-your-face kind of painting, love it or hate it. From what I’ve read, those years sounded like a wish sandwich. You know, the kind where you take two slices of bread and wish you had some meat.

Katz: I was hostile. I was tired of being patronized. I was tired of soft painting. I wanted to kick machos on their asses.

Prince: Did you really own a zoot suit? I mean what is it about clothes? I’m thinking about that high-school letter jacket in one of your self-portraits. You made it look so mature.

Katz: I had seven zoot suits. We define ourselves in the U.S. by clothes and haircuts in each time period. The track jacket is high school. The man wearing it is twenty-nine years old.

Prince: The Marine (1966): one nostril instead of two. Does this just look better that way? Or is it something to do with other art?

Katz: I didn’t realize that it could have two nostrils until you said it.

Prince: Have you ever painted a fat person?

Katz: Yes. Mac McGinnis, a full-length cutout, ten inches wide.

Prince: The sunglasses on your Portrait With Sunglasses . . . they’re particular sunglasses. What about the idea that the particular can be terrifyingly beautiful?

Katz: Fashion is ephemeral. Any symbol of that thing that is really new in fashion instantly becomes mortal.

Prince: You said, "Someday my paintings might look good." I liked that. It’s kind of like you’ve been practicing without a license. What about the idea that someone doesn’t "get it" right away?

Katz: I mean people will get them.

Prince: Have you ever been in a line-up?

Katz: No.

Prince: What about "living illegally" in New York. What was that about?

Katz: Illegal lofts were common. It had to do with zoning. The fire department didn’t want people living in industrial districts in industrial buildings. I felt separated from the straight world. We could lose our place at any time. I was socially fugitive. I didn’t vote or care to during this time. The first loft I had was on Twenty-eighth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue. It ran north and south, narrow and long. It had an orange floor in the north end and a white floor in the south end with a fireplace and a golden bathtub in the room near the fireplace. On the bathtub was "No soap Radio." I painted the loft every fall. It took eighteen hours. It was heated by a kerosene stove.

Prince: Have you ever had any near death experiences?

Katz: I was driving a large Buick Roadmaster convertible at night after a party. We came roaring onto a one-car bridge. There was another car roaring toward us. I waited for the crash. It didn’t happen.

Prince: Are you hydra-headed or do you pretty much have one thing in mind when you are working?

Katz: Not that I know of. I do different types of art and use different parts of my head for the various forms. When I am painting a large finished painting, I think mostly about putting paint on the canvas.

Prince: What really pisses you off about the external world?

Katz: Graffiti in the wrong place.

Prince: Do you vote?

Katz: When I turned twenty-one, I decided to vote. My mother said to me, "I know the reason you’re voting is to find out how the voting machine works. Would you sell me your vote for two dollars?" I said, "Yes."

Prince: What do you think you are accurate about?

Katz: Light. Clothes. People.

Prince: It seems to me you are as close as anybody to being outside of what an artist is supposed to be doing. Yet there’s a perception of you being an insider. Is this contradiction in the painting or in the painter?

Katz: I always felt I could do whatever I wanted as long as it related to live art and live art issues.

Prince: Have you ever gone nuts and just pulled a knife on somebody? Anything close?

Katz: I once considered picking up a dealer and throwing him/her/it down a flight of stairs.

Prince: De Kooning said painters don’t have particularly bright ideas. When you lack ideas you look at your tracks. Is your subject matter "your tracks"? You know, friends, family, yourself?

Katz: A painter I knew once said at an opening, "These paintings are a great idea, I’m glad I didn’t have it." When a painter talks about his ideas, it’s like talking about his wife. The fact that he gets turned on is not very interesting to someone else.

Prince: From "action painting" to "speed painting" . . . what is it about painting fast?

Katz: To paint fast is to start with one side of your mind, let go and let the other side do it.

Prince: How do you feel about your studio? Church? Gas station? What?

Katz: The room in which I spend most of my life is as beautiful as I can make it.

Prince: Who is the most glamorous famous person you ever met?

Katz: I could say Lotte Lenya, Bette Davis, or Ted Wilson, all of whom were more than I thought they could be when I met them. But when I was sixteen years old, I was behind a counter selling hot dogs at the Jamaica Arena at a black dance, when up stepped Lionel Hampton in a dark royal-blue one-button lounge suit and said, "Hot dog." I said, "Mustard?" He said, "Yes."

Prince: Barnett Newman said for him painting was so dead he had to start from scratch "as if painting didn’t exist." The problem for him was not the technique, not the plasticity, the look, or the surface; he gave up the notion of the external world and put himself in the position of the medium. You seem the absolute opposite. What was it like being around all that heroic Abstract Expressionism?

Katz: The fifties were an up and some of the A. E. paintings were inspiring; however, all of the rhetoric was hard for me to take seriously. It only made sense as subject matter, relatively unimportant. The A. E. people quickly made an academy and it was the only show in town. The avant-garde took over and they became the only show in town.

Prince: Have you ever told yourself something that’s not really true? Told it to yourself so many times over the years that you really think now it’s true?

Katz: It’s only by changing one’s mind and ideas that one keeps alive.

Prince: Who’s an artist you’ve been around that you can’t understand why they aren’t more in the public eye?

Katz: What can I say about the public eye? The public eye chooses what it wants.

Prince: Why do you think you haven’t been talked about as a major pop artist?

Katz: I never got a full avant-garde membership card, which meant in the sixties I couldn’t show in avant-garde museums.

Prince: Have you ever been part of something that’s been reported falsely . . . like you were there, but the public record has it all wrong?

Katz: Usually it is the usual. Some jerk writing about my influences as being guys who ripped me off. But in Denmark a reviewer made up a whole story about me: my five children, my parents and grandparents, and my political ambitions. It was too good to want to change it. Actually, I like the assimilation of misinformation.

Prince: Did you ever have a relationship with the "thin air" fifties rock-and-roll or was it always jazz?

Katz: I drifted from jazz to Sonny Rollins who was the last jazz musician I liked. After that, jazz no longer interested me. After that, I became interested in poetry. The 1950s thin music sailed by unnoticed by me. About ten years ago my son started playing it for me and I found it interesting, not as music but as sentiment — like pop tunes and old photos.

Prince: What interrupts your good-night sleep? Do you wake up in the middle of the night and start cursing the IRS?

Katz: Collaborations and business deals reneged. Lies.

Prince: Your work has been described as undeniably Katz. Saying nothing and everything. Enforced ambiguity. Faceless mannequin. Central casting. I mean what kind of man reads Alex Katz?

Katz: I make art for all people. However, I have difficulty reaching semi-intellectuals.

Prince: Have you ever blown a lot of money on something you really didn’t need?

Katz: No.

Prince: What about this notion of passive aggression you’ve been tagged with?

Katz: That term could be applied to my paintings. I think of them as contained and aggressive.

Prince: In your self-portraits are you everyone but yourself or is everyone exactly like you?

Katz: The self-portraits do both at once.

Prince: I must have read ten reviews of your "portraits" show in North Carolina and the journalists all started off with the same "all surface." Do you ever wish just one of them would say something like "all serial killers" or is that "beefing up the meaning"?

Katz: When things get overstated they become boring.

Prince: What are some of the things in your life that you saw or heard or came on and you thought, "Yeah, now that’s new"?

Katz: Lester Young. Billie Holliday. Be Bop. Stan Kenton. Dizzy Gillespie. Manchito. Charlie Parker. Stan Getz. Miles Davis. Sonny Rollins’s Wagon Wheels. Man Ray. Charles Lamb. Georges Braque’s 1913 black and white collages. Pablo Picasso’s sculptures. Malevich’s Suprematist paintings. Henri Matisse’s collages. Jackson Pollock. Barnett Newman. Clifford Still. Roy Lichtenstein, early 1960s. James Rosenquist, early 1960s. Eva Hesse. Jeff Koons. Mike Kelley’s rugs. Richard Avedon’s fashion photos, 1960s. Red Groom’s early happenings. Paul Taylor, late 1950s. William Dunas, early 1970s. Samual Beckett’s Happy Days with Ruth White. John Jesuran’s Red House. Meredith Monk’s theater and music pieces. Godard’s Breathless. Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Antonioni’s L’Avventura. Rudy Burckhardt’s city and country films without acting. 1960s vinyl coats, white or black. Guillaume Apollinaire. John Ashbery’s Skaters. Color TV. Ads. Football. Wide-angle technicolor movies.

Prince: Was there a movie adolescent experience that affected later behavior?

Katz: Movies affected my social, moral, and visual idea of the world. How people spoke, wore clothes, moved and saw. Love, happiness, crime, and punishment. The movies have changed.

Prince: I’m not sure when people talk about the super-ficiality of the times. I’m not sure what they’re talking about. It sounds like they are unhappy or feel out of it. Do you know what kind of times they’re talking about?

Katz: Frank O’Hara said, "I’m a little ashamed of our century but I have to smile." I prefer super-ficiality to communism, academies (A. E. or otherwise), fascism, serious avant-garde, born-again religion, neo-nazis, and French philosophers.

Prince: You once said, "My paintings are supposed to make people feel better." Sounds like a guy I know who said the only good revolution is a revolution that makes people feel good. Do you think art is a good revolution?

Katz: Did I say that?

Prince: Glenn O’Brien said two things about your work, "Cartoons of the most beautiful things in the world" and "Katz — a regular Renaissance kind of guy." I like them both. What do you think?

Katz: Although I don’t think I’m making cartoons, I can’t help but be flattered by the beautiful phrases.

Prince: Who’s your favorite actress?

Katz: Jeanne Moreau.

Prince: If you were standing in line at Macy’s and someone said to you they were next instead of you and you were clearly next, would you argue, stare, walk away, let it pass?

Katz: That depends on the person. Most of the time I would discuss it in a civilized fashion!

Prince: Is there something besides your work you consider yourself to be an authority on? Or at least pretty good or passionate about?

Katz: I am a dilettante in poetry, architecture, landscaping, historical battles, track, basketball, dance, and dancing.

Prince: Did you see Last Exit to Brooklyn?

Katz: Yes. I enjoyed the book when it came out. The picture seemed very German, much softer and clearer than the book. Selby went out of his way to find a bad neighborhood.

Prince: Do you find your cows unbelievable or just contented?

Katz: Cows are unbelievable. There is this cute cow with those ridiculous hooves.

Prince: Do you remember your reaction when Pollock died?

Katz: No. My life and art were in a mess. I don’t think anyone’s death would have gotten to me.

Prince: Have you ever sat at the end of a day’s painting and looked at what you did and felt really happy?

Katz: No. Every so often I say, "I nailed it."

Prince: What do you remember most about your paintings?

Katz: The particular technical difficulty in painting the picture. Recently I repainted a cutout twenty-three years old. When I put in long lines, I remember just how nervous I was painting it the first time.

Prince: Does the weather affect you?

Katz: Yes. I go up on a bright clear day.

Prince: Was there a time when you just couldn’t keep it going? Like you were losing it? Or is it you can’t wait to get to the next painting?

Katz: It’s generally the latter.

Prince: What about the three stooges? Does comedy ever figure in your work?

Katz: Some paintings I’ve done are funny or ridiculous: Sunny, Cows, etc. My timing is good, but they definitely have a superior brutality.

Prince: Were you surprised that the East Village art scene disappeared as quickly as it did? Have there been other similar "disappearances" you can think of?

Katz: Tenth Street disappeared, happenings disappeared, big dancing parties, the Cedar Street Bar scene, 150 Wooster, the artist as a club celebrity all disappeared.

Prince: Gabriel Kohn, Israel Levitan, Clifford Smith, Peter Agostini, Ann Arnold, Tom Doyle, Abram Schlemowitz, James Rosati, Wilfred Zigbaum, Robert Mallary, Martin Craig, David Weinrib, Herbert Ferber, David Slivka, William King, George Preston, Joe Clark, Burt Hansen, Lawrence Calcagno, Al Kotin, William Littlefield, Felix Pasilis, Nicholas Carone, Hide Solomon, Herman Cherry, Giorgio Cavallon, Kyle Morris, Robert Whitman . . . any of these names ring a bell?

Katz: I can identify almost all of their work. Most artists made interesting art for a time and some of them have made a distinguished body of work. In the end, it’s hard to figure it out. Why Motherwell and not Cavallon? It’s someone standing in the right place with the right stuff at the right time.

Prince: What about Patsy Southgate? Did you know of her?

Katz: Patsy Southgate is beautiful, intelligent, and charming. She is a writer, a superior wit and intellect.

Prince: Addendum — Have you ever looked at Gary Winogrand’s photos? What about some of your generation’s photographers?

Katz: Gary Winogrand’s photos buzz for me like Ruff’s. Rudy Burckhardt. Fred McDarrah. Robert Frank.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.