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The Quotable Alex Katz

Alex Katz. "Sunset 1," 2008. Oil on linen, 108 x 84 inches.© Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY/Collection of the artist.

Alex Katz. “Sunset 1,” 2008. Oil on linen, 108 x 84 inches.


There are parts of Alex Katz’s studio that appear to be relics from another era. Its location, for one thing, on West Broadway in Soho—for so long the land of high-end retail and fashion pop-up stores, it’s difficult to even imagine when it was the center of the art world in New York. Another relic: a rotary phone that, at one point in a recent conversation with him, Katz excused himself to use.

One thing that didn’t seem like an antique was Katz himself, who is 87 and talked like a man who had better things to do than be interviewed. He was friendly, but he spoke with a calculated indifference, never saying anything more than he had to in the hope that the conversation might wrap up faster. For example, as I asked him about his three news shows—at Colby College and the High Museum in Atlanta (both opening in July), and at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in New York (on view now)—the exchange felt like patiently watching a flickering light bulb and waiting for it to turn on at full power.

Me: The Colby show is…?

Katz: The Colby is work from the 50’s. A lot of landscapes.

Me: And is the High Museum sort of a retrospective?

Katz: Sort of. It doesn’t go into the 50’s much.

Me: Was it just sort of, uh, serendipitous to have three shows at the same time?

Katz: Yeah, it just fell into place.

And that was that. This isn’t to say, however, that Katz didn’t let loose some bits of wisdom. Herewith, a compendium of Katzisms:

On starting out in New York: “I was carving frames three days a week. I had no central heating, no dentist, no doctors, no clothes. I eventually had money for cigarettes, clean white shirts, and taxi cabs. But that was the way that people were living. You could be a failure for seven or eight years if you learned how to paint.”

On leaving Pace Gallery: “When I make three telephone calls, I expect them to be returned, you know?”

On Larry Gagosian and Gavin Brown fighting over him: “I left Pace. I didn’t have a gallery. And about five months later, Gavin and Gagosian called in the same week. Gavin said something about the paintings that was really brilliant, I thought, his idea of what I was doing. No other dealer ever said anything that bright. So I was very impressed with his intellect, then I was very impressed with the style. I think Gagosian is a genius. He has great style, great taste, but he’s generally in an airplane.”

On the Museum of Modern Art in New York: “Well, the Modern used to be ahead of the art world. It’s gotten more conventional, you know. It’s not ahead of the artists, is what I’m saying. I mean, artists were influenced by what they were showing in the Modern. I don’t think they’ve had shows that are ahead of the artists anymore.”

On using an iPhone, which he called an “iPod,” in his work: “I tried a camera for about three years and then got bored with that. I tried using the face phone—you know, for an iPod, just to get some gestures that I couldn’t get any other way. Normally, I would make drawings, but that’s not as efficient.”

On Frank O’Hara: “He interviewed me before a show in 1954. He said something about Oriental calm. It was kind of interesting, because I thought the work was hot. But he saw it as calm, and he was right.”

After about 20 minutes, he rushed me to an elevator, offering a quick farewell. I was back on the sidewalk, and Katz had moved on to more important matters.

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