Alex Katz, 2011, by Howard Schatz

Alex Katz on work, life and New York

The great artist on working outdoors, how it takes a week to know if a painting’s worked and why nudes don’t date

We’re very happy to have caught up with a number of Phaidon’s artists and authors this year. However, we were especially pleased to speak with the great New York painter Alex Katz. Aside from answering our 2014 questions - twice (thanks Alex!) he also offered us a bit more insight into his art, life and working practices. Here's some of what he told us earlier this week.


Reclining figure, Indian blanket (1987) by Alex Katz
Reclining figure, Indian blanket (1987) by Alex Katz

In painting, do certain subjects suit certain dimensions?

"It depends. There’s no such thing as original life size. A two-inch piece by Giacometti is life-sized, but at a distance. Then again, the movie screen blows things up massively, and your eyes adjust to it."

How much time does it take to work out whether a painting is successful or not?

"Well, a painting looks different after a week. After a week I know whether it’s successful, but paintings change all the time. There are paintings that some people like, that I don’t like at all. There could be a number of things that bother me about a work, that don’t bother other people."


Paul Taylor Dance Company (1963-64) by Alex Katz
Paul Taylor Dance Company (1963-64) by Alex Katz

Do you ever photograph your subjects?

"I don’t photograph, I paint from life. I paint in-situ generally, wherever it is. I remember painting at night, outdoors in Chelsea. I had a cap pulled over my head; no one recognized me. A guy came along and said ‘that’s not bad. I’d like to buy it.’ I said, ‘I can’t sell it to you, I’m an amateur.’"

Do a lot of people paint outdoors in New York these days?

"There are a million painters painting outdoors, or there used to be anyway. Central Park is full of guys painting outdoor scenes. They’re not highly regarded by the sophisticated art world. And I’ve been put in that category by some people."

When you see in image you want to paint, is the subject immediately clear to you?

"Yes, it’s pretty immediate. Sometimes it comes from other paintings, sometimes comes from real life. But it’s immediate. Generally I have a sensation and I know I’m going to get a good painting. It doesn’t come too frequently."


The Black Dress (1960) by Alex Katz
The Black Dress (1960) by Alex Katz

Is there anything you can do to try to find those images?

"Nah, if I’m not thinking about it, it just comes. I’ll be doing sit-ups, look at the window, and there’s a big pop."

How about your models. How do you decide on whose face to paint?

"I just look at them. There’s a woman who’s a curator of a show of paintings from the sixties. She had a sensational face, and she posed for me. I had been in Salzburg and I saw this woodcut by Anselm Kiefer. I thought it was fantastic, so I went home and tried to do a cut like Kiefer. It was an across-the-board winner, but, for me, it doesn’t look anything like a Kiefer. When I was working on it, I was thinking ‘why can’t I get it to look like what I want it to look like?’. Anyway, I liked her face, because it was not a fashion beauty, it was another kind of beauty, it was historic somehow. I’ve just signed it, and I think they’ve already sold some from a proof at a fair. It’s red-hot. Every ten or fifteen years, I do a woodcut that’s red hot. This is the one. It’s called Diana."


Diana (2014) linocut, by Alex Katz
Diana (2014) linocut, by Alex Katz

Where else have you come across models?

"All kinds of places. I tell you, a pretty crazy thing led me to one of them. There’s this commercial photographer that lives downstairs from me by the name of Howard Schatz. A while ago, I was preparing for this exhibition in Hannover, and was wondering what to show. I suggested nudes, as I do one every four years. They said great.

"So, I was looking through my nude paintings, and there are two I think are terrific, but that last few are just so-so. Anyway, this photographer comes up and, and he sees all these nudes. And so he think I’m a nude fanatic or something. So, he said ‘I’ve got this model’. So the model comes up, and she’s got no clothes on; she’s only wearing high heels. Immediately, I knew she was no fashion model, and she’s not an artist model. Turns out she’s a performance artist. So I did a lot of drawings, six, seven or eight, and more than one painting. And the paintings were out of control - a bit wild. So I made some drawings, but she left. Anyway, I’m definitely going to do something like that again. Not quite like them, but similar. That, I know will be interesting."

You say you do nudes roughly every four years?

"That's a rough approximation. The nudes look as if they’re in a more generalized time frame than the subjects with clothes, because styles of clothing change. Whatever the clothing is now, I want to paint. I like clothing, I like the way people wear clothing. It gives the picture some energy."

Buy our newly updated Alex Katz monograph here.