“Most art books are like novels,” said artist Alex Katz at a recent discussion of the format that records and embellishes the careers of artists, and often sits unturned on coffee tables: “I only look at them once or twice.” Nonetheless, that’s hardly the intention, and Katz has certainly given bookworks a sustained “go.” Katz’s first book was published by the Whitney in 1974 to accompany his show of prints; his latest, Alex Katz: An American Way of Seeing, is scheduled for release by Kerber in March 2010. In between, upwards of 20 monographs and exhibition catalogues have discussed the artist and his work. Speaking at Phaidon Press in an interview with David Cohen, publisher and editor of artcritical.com, Katz discussed the illustrated survey of his work published by Phaidon in 2006, and the significance of print renditions of his painted images.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Katz received his first art books (on Rembrandt and Cezanne) as a prize for winning a speech competition at Cooper Union, where he was a student from 1949–1950. Back then, the artist recalls, books were a medium of secondary importance. Text and color images could not be printed on the same page, and readers flipped between sections in order to locate the corresponding color panel to the reading. Their primary functions were as tools to jog memory or as reference resources. The difference between the art and the reproduced form was entirely clear.
From 1936, when the first large-format art books with plates were released, to the 1960s, which saw the proliferation of techniques like phototypesetting, pad printing, laser printing, and digital press, a lot has changed since Katz’s student days. Much, but not all, of the responsibilities of reference have fallen to gallery web sites and other online archives, allowing art books to come in to their own as a more artistic medium. Katz refers to the book as a type of quality control, saying that in his own experience, “”Once you see good printing, you know there’s a standard you look for, which can’t be replaced.” It’s the tactility and variety enabled by printing that Katz indicates give it a special place in the world of images, which persists in the Internet era. He says, “Right now, there is a big need for and opportunity for book publishing.”
Katz’s work lends itself specifically to representation on paper; characteristic paintings and prints employ flat, graphic shapes, broad swaths of color, and a sleek finish. Yet, the artist is quick to differentiate his work as it appears in print from the work in the physical space of a museum or gallery. Katz reserves a specialized place for art but doesn’t define the circulation of his images as exclusive to an exhibition context. “Forget about the original,” he said, in response to a question about matching colors from a painting to a reproduction, “You have to translate it.” Katz sees the book’s images as distinct entities, which is perhaps what allows him to take a more reserved role in the production of his publications. He compares the editors to curators, and allows the book’s concept to guide the placement and look of the work: “You don’t have an aesthetic super-ego telling you not to take the reproduction seriously.”