In The Brooklyn Rail, Phong Bui talks with Alex Katz about his paintings and process. In this excerpt, Katz explains his early decision to scale up.
“When I started to paint directly from nature, the paintings were focused behind my head. Somehow I understood how to put paint in focus just instinctively. Also, it may relate to when I was in school working from life models. The teacher would say, ‘twenty minute pose’—I couldn’t do anything in twenty minutes. So I realized that I better pay attention to it. That was when I began to draw around the clock every day. I drew in subways, buses, restaurants, and bars. I just kept drawing for about two years, and I got to be able to draw pretty rapidly. But it took another six years until I was able to draw on both sides of the line. The early drawing was more descriptive, which is part of the application of imagery. And with the paint it was the same thing. At Cooper Union, Braque was considered the best painter, and he painted dry, in layers, but when I saw Pollock I thought that his paintings weren’t exactly wet on wet, but it’s much more direct painting. That was when I started doing the direct painting, I just accelerated, like what I was doing with the drawing, I did a painting a day for at least ten years. And at the end of that ten years I destroyed nearly a thousand paintings—I didn’t care because they were just about experimentation. When anyone said, ‘Alex is a good painter’ at that point it was almost like a putdown. Anyway, the problem with painting is that it has to do with the craft, so you really have to figure out how to do it yourself. And the problem was to paint a larger painting in the same direct way.
I found myself in the middle of a road painting a six foot square painting and a car came and blew the painting away. I said, ‘This is not going to work. I was lucky today but I might not be so lucky tomorrow.’ That’s when I started to make sketches. Then when I got to the big one I could paint it in about the same time as the sketches pretty early on. The important thing was I realized that there wasn’t any large figurative painting that I thought was that interesting. I already knew the Abstract Expressionists in New York got around Paris by going big. (Matisse could have painted great big but he didn’t, and Picasso—I don’t think he was so hot on large paintings.) But as far as big paintings of the figure were concerned, no one had been there. It was problematic whether or not you could do it but since I had spent the first ten years dealing with those problems, it just worked out okay when I took a risk. And if that works, then you say, ‘Well, let’s go further.’ As the technique got better, I was able to figure out how to deal with group compositions.” Read more.
Alex Katz: Fifteen Minutes at Pace Wildenstein, through June 13; Alex Katz: Reflections at the Museo delle Arti di Catanzaro, Calabria, Italy, through June 13; and Alex Katz: An American Way of Seeing at the Sara Hildén Art Museum in Tampere, Finland through May 30.