The artist Alex Katz spoke exclusively to Phaidon.com about his works, worries and wife.
On Alex Katz: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
The works on show are portraits and they’re all working with frontal light, which eliminates a lot of details and flattens the form out. I worked a lot like that in the ’50s so it’s nice to go back to it with a different technique.
One Flight Up which I did in the late '60s  which has 30 heads and faces - fronts and backs - will also be on display together with paintings from the ’70s and ’80s and some transferring from the Timothy Taylor Gallery. The works that will be on show are my top choices from my personal collection.
My painting of Anna Wintour [US Editor of Vogue Magazine] is attracting a lot of attention and that will be hung by itself at the exhibition.
She was very nice, very easy, very pleasant. I was told it was her first time being painted, which is kind of amazing. It was actually Alexander Nairne’s idea [director of the National Portrait Gallery] for me to paint Anna. I think the painting is terrific and I know Anna thinks so too.
It’s interesting, because both Anna and I cut our ties at an early age and just went into these fugitive occupations at full blast. She really works hard and I do too. It’s like going into a place where there’s no floor. You have to either do it or die. That’s what painting is to me, there’s no floor, there’s no retreat – I’ve just got to do it.
I paint everyday. I work seven days a week. I need a large space to work – at least 35ft wide. In the winter I work in a space that is about 50 x 45ft, with a ceiling height that accommodates a 12ft painting, which is important to me.
In the summer I paint in my studio in Maine, which is on a pond - a four-mile pond. That studio has an even higher ceiling and is about 30 x 50ft. It has big windows on both sides, so it’s like painting outdoors – it’s a fabulous studio! I love the light there. My summer studio faces south, and the sun sort of moves around it. The studio is just the way I want it – it’s very controlled. I like the size, the light, it’s clean – it’s a very pleasant and harmonious environment.
The sketches I do can happen at any time, day or night. I’ve painted at night in the middle of New York City because I wanted something. Once I was in a park and a guy said: ‘Hey that’s a very nice painting, I’d like to buy it.’ I said: ‘Oh I can’t sell it to you - I’m an amateur!’ He would have been very embarrassed if I’d told him the price for it!
These days I start painting in the morning and paint throughout the day. It starts with an idea of what I think art should be. Then I find something that correlates with it outside of me; if it’s an action or something like that I’ll make pen and ink sketches; if it’s something like a landscape then I go from the sketch to a cartoon which I paint directly on to the canvass.
For my portraits I make a finished drawing from the sketch and call the model in later and correct it; then I enlarge it to a cartoon and transfer it. I pre-mix all the colours and pick out the brushes I need so when I start to paint everything is prepared: the drawing is on the canvass, I have the sequence figured out and I just do it. It normally takes three to six hours to do a painting like one of these [going on display at the NPG]
Developing over the years
I’m doing what I want to do now and I’m doing it flat out, but I never thought I’d be a full time painter.
I couldn’t believe I got in to The Cooper Union [the prestigious art school]. And I said from now on I’m going to be serious with my life and I worked so hard.
I left art school in ’49, so I’ve been painting professionally for 60 years. America’s wars never got so bad to stop me, so I could continually paint and most artists haven’t had the luck to paint for that length of time.
When I started out in the ’50s the best you could hope for was some teaching position, but I knew I wanted to be a painter. I painted a lot from photographs during the ’50s, but it was just like painting landscapes - very generalised.
I concentrated more on portraits in the ’60s. By the ’80s I was doing works to show how people relate to people and showed people touching each other.
I didn’t want to paint landscape pieces for the rest of my life. I really wanted to do something new. Most painters do that. I feel I’m better than most painters or at least I want to try.
In the '90s I went back to large landscapes but I got the idea of making an environmental landscape. Most landscapes are in the distance, so the idea was a wrap-around painting – one that wraps around you so that you’re in the landscape. They developed into 10 x 20ft paintings. It was a lot fun!
I’ve been painting a long time. I’ve seen a lot of art movements come and go. Painting is sort of like fashion, it changes every few years. I like fashion and I like painting. I started in the '70s when it was out of fashion to do fashion. There are a lot of people who think art is a joy forever - meaning it should stay the same, but paintings change - the new ones and the old ones. Our responses to them changes and we grade them differently.
Seeing the light
I’m technically better than I was 20 years ago, and I experimented more then. Now I’m more focused. These days if I get a good idea I’ll just work on it. If something’s wrong or dull I just change the light. Light is usually the answer! I used to use a cross light and now I use a frontal light and it changes things quite a bit.
I’m a colourist but I don’t think of it as colour, I think of it as light. You have to get the light right and colour’s the way to do it.
I start with an idea, see something that correlates and then just do it. Some things take years because they require a lot of control.
I wanted to paint a whole beach scene with a lot of people but I couldn’t figure out how to do it for years. One summer I realised that there are gestures you can only capture with a camera - non-repetitive gestures. So I got my daughter-in-law to get me a camera and told her to set it for a 14 year old! Every afternoon I would go out and take pictures and then make paintings of them.
At the end of three years, I got a run that was really successful but by then I wasn’t interested anymore, and I’ve never taken photos since. Taking photos in that way gave me something I couldn’t get any other way. There are a lot of things I can’t get at that are better done with a camera or movie.
Fear of genius
I was intimidated by the 19th century idea of genius and I knew I was no genius; I thought you had to be a genius to be a painter or forget it. I think Picasso had doubts about whether he was a genius instead of accepting he was a great painter.
I dealt with the fear of genius when I got connected with myself, with the outdoor paintings I was doing. I felt such a rush and I thought I don’t care anymore. I thought I’m going flat out for this. I’m not going to teach and I’m certainly not going to be a commercial artist. I figured I could be a successful illustrator in three years and to be a painter I figured it would take seven or eight years.
Looking back I did what was right for me. It’s sort of like Dante trying to get through the woods. At first you can’t find your way and then it clears and you find yourself drawing and painting. I felt like I’d been lied to and I wish I hadn’t had that 19th century genius idea tossed at me. I would have felt more secure.
Now I think I’m a great painter! I’ve no doubts about it. I can put my paintings with other great paintings; they’re certainly not better than someone like Matisse’s but they’re pretty good.
Move over Monet – Katz does water lilies
I’ve done a big series of water lilies. I’m going to show them this summer at the Farnsworth Museum. The water lilies are on the pond in Maine and I’ve been looking at them for 50 years but I never touched them because of Monet. I feel pretty good about them now but at first I only saw Monet’s lilies and I couldn’t figure out how to do them. But I said you’re going to do it, and I just did it.
I feel like I’ve been moving towards hard edges in the last 10 years. When I started doing some of those big landscapes some of those strokes were very hard edged and it looked ok, and I got thinking about edges and hard edges and I realize how a really good painter can paint a hard edge and it doesn’t become descriptive - when it’s descriptive it has no interior mass or volume. Picasso’s edge on a square is dense, Stuart Davies edge on a square is thin and the form becomes thin. Ben Duesenberg doesn’t have the density on the edge. I was at a show and I noticed Velázquez had put a tight edge on a leg and it should have been thin which should have collapsed the body but it didn’t because of his skill. So I said I’m going to try it.
These water lilies all have fairly tight hard edges. You’ve got to take a chance and seeing how good you are. I’m restless and if I don’t take risks I just get bored and disgusted with myself. The quality goes down. If I’m working on a series it will start off rough and by the time I get to the seventh or eighth painting it’s really good and then I’m bored and it’s time to move on.
‘My wife could nail Miss America!’
My wife, Ada, is my muse. It just sort of turned out that way. She’s like Dora Maar [Picasso’s muse and lover]. She’s a perfect model - a European-American beauty. If she was two inches taller she could nail Miss America! When she was young she went to the movies and was very influenced - all her gestures come out of movies; she’s like a dancer, she doesn’t make a bad gesture. I am really lucky!
I could use her in many different ways and now as an older glamorous woman. She’s perfect. She’ll still stop traffic. It’s perfect casting. Most of the people I paint are cast into roles and I’m the director.
Vivien, my son Vincent’s wife, has taken over my wife Ada’s part. Vivien is Brazilian and in Brazil she’s considered attractive but in New York she’s dynamite!
The artist's artist
Art has five audiences:
You’ve got the general educated public, and they seem to like me.
You have the painters and who are my primary audience - painters and poets seem to like my work a lot.
Then you have collectors. When I started no one was interested in my paintings, it was only artists who were buying them for the first 15 years; then strangers started buying them.
Then there are the dealers who see a paintings differently and I’m fairly attractive to dealers.
Finally there are the institutions and art historians who generally think my work is too radical. A lot of art historians are involved in the avant-garde, which has been over for a long time from where I am. It’s taken 20 years for them to catch on to my big heads.
I always wanted to do something new, it’s instinctive for me. I wanted to make a painting that looked new I don’t believe in making paintings that are just art. There’s a story I remember my mother telling. I was painting and my brother asked my mother: ‘Why is Alex painting the backs of heads?’ And my mother said: ‘Because everyone now is painting faces and as you know Alex is always ahead of everybody!’
I’ve got a big show coming up at the end of June at the Farnsworth Museum, which will be all new paintings that have never been shown before and will include my water lilies series.
I started some flower paintings last summer focusing on certain descriptive information and leaving the rest as generalized forms. You can’t look at any one thing for any length of time, you’re eye is moving all over the place in continuous motion. I did a flower painting that started small but ended up being 6 x 12ft. It looks similar to something I did 15 years ago but there are a lot of differences with it. This summer I’m going to work on painting a lot of different coloured flowers in this way.
Advice for aspiring painters
You’ve got to paint six days a week, six hours a day; you do that for six or seven years and you find out where you’re at. Painting needs a terrific application of energy, at least for me anyway.
Also, if you don’t read what’s going on you’re never going to be a painter because you have to have some knowledge of things. You probably have to discard 50% of what you read by art historians but the other 50% you have to work on, you work for it or against it.
When I learnt to draw, I drew around the clock for a couple of years. If I wasn’t eating or in school, I was drawing; I’d draw on dates and I’d be drawing at four in the morning coming back on the subway.
With the application of mental and physical energy you can get better.
Sign up to receive Phaidon stories via email