‘The world caught up with me’: Painter Alex Katz continues prolific work

Alex Katz is considered one of the most prominent and prolific American artists of the past 50 years. Best known for his bright, billboard-sized portraits, Katz's work has been the subject of two museum retrospectives this year. NewsHour's Phil Hirschkorn, who spoke with Katz at his summer home in Maine, has the story.

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  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Even at 88-years-old, Alex Katz paints almost every day.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    I like doing it. 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.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Starting out, Katz thought he could never be a full-time painter without a part-time job.

    When I sat down with him outside his summer studio in Lincolnville, Maine, he told me his first gallery shows didn't sell much.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    I had five flops in a row.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    And now, you're in museums all over the world.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    Yeah. I'm like near the top of the pyramid at this point.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    This summer's retrospective at Atlanta's High Museum featured classic Katz.

    Group portraits, bright colors, clean lines, and his main subject of recent years – landscapes.

    His inspiration comes from observation. He's like a wallflower, painting family and friends and other people he meets.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    I've asked waiters, waitresses to pose.

    You know, they think I'm coming on. And someone tells them, "Oh no. He's a really good painter."

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    His favorite subject across the decades has been his wife, Ada, painting her more than 250 times.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    Ada's like a perfect model. Picasso would have jumped at her.

    Her measurements was Miss America. Ada literally stopped the traffic the first time she came in a bathing suit. She used to that — she goes on a beach, guys fall over.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    The Colby College Museum in Maine, houses the largest Katz collection anywhere – 850 works.

    Colby now has an exhibit focusing on Katz's early work, from the 1950s, which he dubbed "brand new and terrific."

    Diana Tuite is the curator.

  • DIANE TUITE:

    I think that what Alex seemed to know coming out of art school was that he didn't want to be doing what anyone else was doing.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    What everyone else seemed to be doing was abstract expressionism. Jackson Pollock had led the charge.

    And rather than paint like Pollock, Alex decided that there were things he could adopt from someone like Pollock or someone like Willem de Kooning and reapply to representational art.

    That that would be the newest, the brand new, the most terrific.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    You were figurative. You did portraits.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    I knew what I wanted to do. And I didn't know how to do it.

    The show in Colby shows me fooling around with trying to find what I wanted to do.

  • DIANE TUITE:

    All of the elements in the bouquet, the flowers of the title, are actually also visible in the vase.

    His early paintings merged the foreground with the background. The sky and the land, the water, the sand all become these stacks strata of color.

    The figures are just a small part of the story.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Initially, Katz painted from photographs, like these figures in a field or these four children.

    Then, while taking art classes in Maine, Katz says, he found his eyes.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    I like the light. The further north you get, the less white light you have and the more color.

    And I thought the color around here, you know, is just really marvelous. And that was a big reason for coming here.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    He's come back to coastal Maine for the past 61 summers.

    He built a studio overlooking a pond and often finds subject matter right outside the window.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    A plumber said to me — I hadn't seen him for 20 years.

    He said, "Hey Alex. You still painting?" I said, "I try to keep my hand in it."

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    When Katz has an idea, he first draws a sketch and then paints a small study.

    When people have seen six-foot-by-six-foot Alex Katz paintings or larger they all start with this?

  • ALEX KATZ:

    Yeah, they all start with that. Everything starts with sketches, studies.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    In his summer studio, or when he returns to Manhattan in September, Katz transforms the studies into large canvases.

    So this [small study], becomes this [huge canvas].

    Katz works fast, applying different colors and layers of wet paint on top of each other. I watched him complete this 15-foot-by-11-foot painting of trees in just 90 minutes.

  • DIANE TUITE:

    He has been one of the most important representational painters certainly in American art and really internationally.

    He has really transcended any art movement and continues to really be influential for young painters today.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    What's happening now is that it's like an explosion of different people are interested in my work than were, like, ten years ago.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Why do you think that is?

  • ALEX KATZ:

    I think longevity is part of it. And I think the big change from the absolutism of modern art to the open area we are in now. I fit.

    I think in a sense the world caught up with me. I feel like I'm 30, 40 years younger than I am.

  • PHIL HIRSCHKORN:

    Most people your age slow down.

  • ALEX KATZ:

    Well, I ain't most people. Am I?

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