Turner Contemporary Gallery, Margate, from the 6 October 2012 to the 13 January 2013, will be home to an exhibition of works by acclaimed American painter Alex Katz. Featuring works from the 1950s to the present, the show takes a look at his studies in oil, his large-scale paintings, his collages and cut-outs in an impressive display of colour, scale and immense skill. Aesthetica sat down with Katz to talk about his work, influences and life.
A: You must have done a lot of interviews – do you mind them?
AK: I don’t mind them, no. Sometimes I say things that I wouldn’t have thought of in any other context. It clears up my head sometimes.
A: Can you tell me about your work’s relationship with music? I’m aware of your love of jazz and poetry, but is there more?
AK: It’s like fashion. Painting, music – it’s all in the world of fashion. The hemlines go up, the hemlines go down. That’s the way it is. In the early fifties, in Europe, there was Existentialism. In the USA there was bebop. And bebop was breaking down lines. William Faulkner was very popular. And painting went along side that… breaking the lines. You have currents in the arts. I think my work relates to all the currents and if it doesn’t relate to the currents, it can be a very good painting, but it’s out of it.
A: How about now? Do you listen to music now?
AK: Now…? I think we’re in a time where things are getting more personal and more recessive, it’s almost like a more depressed period, not an “up” period. The 50’s were really up and so were the sixties, but I think we’re seeing a slightly depressed period all over, so you get depressed a lot. I don’t like gypsy music. And minor key stuff. People love it in America. (singing) I’m so sad and lonely, now that you’ve gone. Stuff like that, I really despise that.
A: What inspired you to paint landscapes so close-up?
AK: In the early sixties I wanted to paint a painting that was really aggressive because there were all these macho abstract-expressionist paintings; the idea was to knock them off the wall with a flower. The TV was just developing too and they started to crop heads to bring it into the living room. And the cropped head would seem like it were coming way into the room… so I got interested in doing a bunch of cropped heads and landscapes in close, big compositions.
A: A lot of the time, you seem to be referred to as a pop artist, but I wouldn’t refer to you as a pop artist myself. Is it a term that you can identify with or is that something you don’t like hearing?
AK: I’m pre-pop. And I went on another way. I was on top of the bubble with the flat grounds and all that, and then Roy Lichtenstein came and I wasn’t all that any more. I was more interested in painting, traditional painting in a newer context and I think that pop art was more dealing with signs really. Graphic art. I wasn’t interested in pursuing that, or changing what I initially wanted to do.
A: I really like the way you talk about light and the speed it has in painting. What is it that draws you to focusing so much on light?
AK: The quick light of Pollock and De Kooning really interest me and I found impressionist paintings to be a slow light – Capturing fast light is like painting the immediate present which, to me, is painting eternity… if you can get into the immediate present, then there’s no past and there’s no future. That’s what the immediate tense is. I always try to get that in my paintings. Even more so in my recent flower paintings where all the flowers are really non-descriptive. It’s an image that’s clear, but the description of the flower is sometimes really goofy (laughs)…
A: Are you ever satisfied with your work?
AK: No, I never am satisfied. I just want to always do something else. I want to keep moving. A lot of older painters were obsessed with truth. Like Clyfford Still, he found something that he thought was truth and perfect. And because he thought it was truth, he kept painting it for another fifty years, so it got duller and duller. I think of truth as a sort of variable; it isn’t a constant, so you have to just keep moving. I move more than most artists my age (laughs).
A: Are you an optimist?
AK: I don’t know… I like to present it that way – that things can be pleasant, yeh. I like to make people feel good.
A: Has your work changed much over time?
AK: The basic idea hasn’t changed much, just different solutions.
A: Any big influences from your time in the 50’s during the New York School?
AK: You’re in a world where there are multiple cultural things available to you and I tried to take advantage of it. So, I was influenced by Matisse, Bonnard, Pollock, Japanese prints, Egyptian sculpture, Matthew Brady photos, all of those photos… the guys around me. Being a painter is to be part of a culture, it’s not about being a solitary person who’s a genius. You’re just part of a culture and I found that the high modernist thing of only working from the recent past was just not good enough for me. Not real. I felt that you could work from anything. I still feel that you can work from anything.
Alex Katz: Give Me Tomorrow, 6 October until 13 January 2013, Turner Contemporary, Rendezvous, Margate, Kent, CT9 1HG.
1. Alex Katz, Black Hat (Bettina), 2010, Oil on linen, 152.4 x 213.4 cm, Private Collection, London © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Image courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris – Salzburg.
2. Alex Katz, Islesboro Ferry Slip 1975, 198 x 213.4 cm Art © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
3. Alex Katz, Eleuthera, 1984, Oil on linen, 305 x 670.5 cm Private Collection, Courtesy Galería Javier López, Madrid © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.