Some birthday advice from Alex Katz
The painter celebrates his 91st birthday today - he has some wise words for those a long way behind him
Are you going to art school after the summer? Or perhaps you’ve graduated and are currently trying to find your place in the gallery system? You will, undoubtedly be entering an art world very different from the one Alex Katz encountered in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Nevertheless, the New York painter still had to deal with two-faced gallerists, snooty painters, abject poverty and snide journalists. He battled on and has since become one of America’s most successful painters. Here’s a little careers advice, from everyone’s favourite fine-art nonagenarian, as reproduced in our Alex Katz book.
Remember: fine art is harder than commercial illustration “In 1949 I figured it would take three years to become a successful illustrator and eight or nine years to get established as a painter and painting was the biggest thrill I ever had.”
Take on odd jobs to support yourself “I spent ten years carving frames for two or three days a week. I lived without radiators for twelve years. I spent nothing on doctors, dentists or clothes. In the 1950s rents were cheap; the cost of living was low.”
Shop your work around, and value honest feedback “I took paintings to dealers uptown, wrapped and tied up with clothes line. That’s what people did before slides. One dealer, Harry Saltpeter, liked them enough to put them in a closet. I took them back a year later. The dealer I liked best was Mrs Kraushaar. She simply said, ‘These are too light for my gallery.’ "
There will be bad times “Up until 1957, when I met Ada [his wife], it was, despite the intellectual liveliness, the most unstable, unhappy period of my life.”
Don’t follow every piece of advice you get... “An older painter gave me some advice: ‘Figuration is obsolete and colour is French.’ I said to myself, ‘To you, baby.’”…but remember to take the compliments from respectable admirers “Bill de Kooning said, ‘They look like photos, but they are paintings, and don’t let them knock you away from it. Philip Guston, Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg were enthusiastic, and we started seeing each other.”
Don’t worry if your peers succeed in other media, painting isn’t like other careers “One is able to become an artist in theoretical art right out of art school, or even at art school. A painter can become an artist after eight or ten years, but it doesn’t make sense to spend all that time if one is interested in becoming a success. Painting is a self-indulgent passion that is not practical. To be a practical painter makes less sense than trying to be a painter. To paint to fit the size of a station wagon, or a living room, or the gallery doesn’t make sense. The size and content of art should be determined by the artist’s needs. It is the most practical way to get at art.”
When it comes to press, judge the reviewer as he or she judges you “An English journalist gave me a bad review on a show at the ICA in London. He seemed like a jerk, and I thought it was proper that I received a bad review from him, and that I was likely in good company. I asked Irving Sandler about him, and he said, ‘Rothko’s bad review was much longer than yours.’ By and large I can say that people who like my work are a better crowd than the people who don’t.”
Don’t worry too much about fashion “Novelty inventions and gimmicks can have fashion and style, but have much less voltage than great painting. Painting does not need you. You have to need painting. Painting has to become you.”
You can take a look at our Alex Katz book here; for more on the development of painting from the mid-20th century until now get Painting Beyond Pollock; and for more on contemporary painting get Vitamin P3.