Alex Katz on his new Serpentine show
We join the painter at The Serpentine Gallery for a guided tour of what he says might be his best show yet
While we delight in the exquisite reproductions of Alex Katz’s work which we publish in our Contemporary Artist Series book, there is really no substitute for seeing these vivid, fluid works in person.
The artist’s new London exhibition, Alex Katz: Quick Light, at The Serpentine 2 June – 11 September, focuses on Katz’s recent landscape paintings, while also including works from the past two decades.
We accompanied Alex and the Serpentine’s exhibitions curator Melissa Blanchflower as they both took in this display of 19 of Katz’s painting, which, the artist claims, might well be his best exhibition ever.
How was this Serpentine show described to you when it was first proposed?
Alex They said they just wanted a show of new work.
Melissa And landscape as well, new works and landscapes.
Alex Yes; landscape and new work. Gavin Brown made a model of the Serpentine. We installed the show in miniature. I went over it, then we sent it over, and they changed it. And we changed it.
Melissa it was a kind of conversation, wasn’t it?
Alex Yes. It was a kind of conversation. It went back three or four times, and it kept getting improved right up until yesterday!
What final changes did you make?
Alex There was a grey painting with a roof, and I really wanted a ten foot painting there, but it’s too big for the spot [gestures to the South Gallery’s south-eastern wall], so we tried this roof one [Untitled Cityscape 4, 2014], but it didn’t hold; they decided it wasn’t right and they moved it elsewhere. So they put this painting [Snow Scene 3, 2014] here and it did look good. It’s a real improvement in the show. Big improvement. That was the only weak spot in the show. Otherwise I thought this room [The Serpentine’s East Gallery] is really good, and the other rooms are brilliant.
We sometimes think of you as a portrait painter, yet landscapes have always appeared in your art, haven't they?
Alex Yes, I’ve always done landscapes. I started in the nineties with the big landscapes.
Melissa We actually have one from 1995 [City Landscape, 1995].
Alex That’s how they made the show look good.
Melissa What? [laughs]
Alex Well, they said they wanted this to be the best show you’ve ever had. And I said ‘well, you haven’t got a chance’. So they went and added four paintings, and now they have got a chance. And that [City Landscape] is one of them.
What do you like about City Landscape?
Alex It’s got amazing colour. How the hell I ever did it, I don’t know.
What unique kind of challenges does working with dark colours and near-blacks throw up?
Alex Well, they're very hard to work with, because you’re mixing pieces of mud. Then you’re working from perception of the scene. I went out and painted it in the middle of the winter. If you’re painting outside and don’t use lights, you can see it OK, but you don’t know what you’re painting; and if you use lights you can see what you’re painting, but you can’t see it properly. So I went out and painted it without seeing it properly and went home and painted what I thought I saw. I did that two or three times and I finally got it together.
Melissa So, you painted this outside?
Alex Yes. It was the middle of winter. I had a hat on; people thought I was totally crazy.
You don’t get recognized that much?
Alex No. People just think I’m crazy. I’ve got a wool hat on and I’m painting at 10:30 at night.
Did you use a camera to help you create any of these paintings?
Alex Generally the work is from perception. These multiple figure pieces [Emma, 2015] are I’m using an iPod camera to capture a model's gestures, then its painted from perception and drawing. It’s very complicated, but I’m using a camera to get those arm gestures, and so on.
You have one picture of your wife Ada in this exhibition? Could you tell us a little about that?
Alex Yes. It’s in the front gallery. Let’s go over there [walks over].
Alex Age and beauty is what that one is about. Age and beauty. She’s always been, like, on-stage. She’s like that socially; she doesn’t make a bad gesture.
Melissa She’s very elegant.<!--[if gte mso 10]>
Alex I was doing a fashion shoot in Paris. You know. They had all the models there, posing, and the photographer looks around and says ‘you know, Ada is much more elegant than anything else in this room.’ You watch her, and every movement is elegant.