The problem Alex Katz has with waiters

The 88-year-old New York painter might have found new fans in later life, yet some perennial problems remain
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Passing (1990) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz
Passing (1990) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz

You can tell the summer is over when Alex Katz comes back to Manhattan. Every year from June until mid-September, the painter ventures four hundred miles north to his yellow clapboard farmhouse in Lincolnville, near the Maine coastline.

To mark his recent exhibitions in New York and Atlanta, the US current-affairs show PBS Newshour visited Katz at his summer home, to talk life, success, failure and painting, and PBS has just posted the piece online.

 

Ada with Bathing Cap (1982) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz
Ada with Bathing Cap (1982) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz

It might surprise today’s art lovers to learn that Katz, whose landscape painting retrospective opens next month at the Guggenheim Bilbao, could barely support himself through his gallery shows when he was starting out.

“I had five flops in a row,” admits the 88-year-old painter. Perhaps this early adversity keeps him working, despite his age, yet Katz says the sheer enjoyment of creating his clear bright pictures drives him on. 

 

Sunset 4 (2008) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz
Sunset 4 (2008) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz

“I like doing it,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen when you start on a canvas. I love the adventure.  And I love sticking it to people who didn’t think I was anything for so many years.”

Indeed, it’s not only art-world insiders who once doubted Katz’s painterly credentials. Restaurant staff don’t always take his requests to model seriously. “I’ve asked waiters, waitresses to pose,” he admits, “You know, they think I’m coming on. And someone tells them, 'Oh no.  He’s a really good painter.'”

 

The Black Jacket (1972) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz
The Black Jacket (1972) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz

Thankfully, he has also taken to painting flowers and woodland scenes, many of which were created in and around his summerhouse. Katz says it's the daylight that draws him to this part of the country. “I like the light,” he says. “The further north you get, the less white light you have and the more colour. And I thought the colour around here, you know, is just really marvelous.  And that was a big reason for coming here.”

 

Blue Flag 4 (1967) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz
Blue Flag 4 (1967) by Alex Katz. From Alex Katz

More and more people are developing an appreciation for the bright colours in Katz canvases, as the solemn diktats of Modernism faded into art history. Katz himself appreciates this change, “from the absolutism of modern art to the open area we are in now, “he says. “I fit. I think in a sense the world caught up with me.”

 

 

To see more of the kind of paintings that we’ve grown to love get our newly updated monograph here; watch the full interview PBS above, and to learn more about another American artist who appreciates the country’s northwestern coastal light, read this piece about Joel Meyerwitz’s Cape Cod series.


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