Alex Katz and Jules de Balincourt in conversation -
Born in New York City in 1927, Alex Katz has worked out of a studio in the heart of SoHo since the 1950s. Its large windows ofer a glimpse of the city's energy while refecting the dazzling luminosity of his work. One winter's day, this is where he welcomes Jules de Balincourt for a conversation on painting, its evolution and expectations, caught between rigorous observation of daily life and a sense of utopia.
Jules de Balincourt: I'm very pleased to meet you, Alex. For artists of my generation, you have always been an important fgure. Even at university, I followed your work. You studied at The Cooper Union here in New York in the 1940s. What was the teaching on ofer? Alex Katz: It was a pretty classical training, based on drawing and copying antiques. We could spend anything up to a week on one, devoting at least three hours to it every day. After a few years, I fnally knew how to draw. In the 1970s, Ada, my wife, published a book of interviews with eight artists, titled Eight Begin, about their early days in New York. What comes out of it is that even though some preferred abstraction, they could all execute a fgurative drawing. At The Cooper Union, the teaching was oriented toward modern art, principally Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, as well as Paul Klee and Joan Miró, of whom one of our professors was a big fan. At the time, don't forget, New York was practically an artistic backwater. All that changed in the 1950s. JB: Yes, that's when modernism moved from Paris to New York, as Serge Guilbaut recounts in his book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. AK: To look at it, I used to go to the Whitney Museum, but there was so little modern art to be found in the city that I decided to paint what I saw. To my eyes, it was an extension of abstract expressionism because I admired Jackson Pollock, who had shaken of the infuence of Paris. He wasn't better than Matisse, but he had opened the door and was another voice in terms of France's previously undisputed dominance. He showed that New York could also have a vision. One day, when I was painting beside a river— kind of in the style of Pierre Bonnard—something clicked into place. It was pretty, but when I looked up, I saw a guy on a rooftop in the setting sun. His golden skin stood out against the deep blue sky. I thought, What presence! What fesh!
“A painter has to fnd his own road and determine what he can and cannot do.”AK
That's what I want to show, by giving great importance to the subject. JB: I'm often asked what inspires me and how ideas come to me. It's not an easy question to answer because my work is fairly instinctive and intuitive. Initially, I nurture an idea I believe in, then I just paint. Some paintings start with no preconceived plan. A landscape can emerge subconsciously, just by putting colors on any matter. The start of a piece, for instance, could be a bright orange, then I discover my subject as the painting gradually becomes more or less identifable. Whereas you seem to be saying that the subject takes precedence over the painting or image, which is fairly conceptual... AK: Even though my subjects are very ordinary—because I only paint very beautiful women or landscapes—the subject matters because it is what makes a work of art. After that, it's all about energy. A painter has to fnd his own road and determine what he can and cannot do. Personally, I paint six hours a day, even when realism leads to major issues because what people observe is so variable. You might think that the world evolves completely every twenty years, and you might fnd that your painting contains something pretty realistic, even if most people don't think so. This question of predetermination is complicated because there are multiple ways of seeing things, linked to our personal heritage and dominated today by information technology. Jules, do you work from digital images? JB: Very rarely, I use images from internet. Most often, my subject occurs to me naturally. Similarly, I never do preparatory drawings, nor do I work from photos. I think that if I did so or tried transferring images, there wouldn't be this kind of deafness in my work. I also think that photography imposes a certain distance with the subject and, increasingly, I work with transparency, whereas before it was much more about the surface. AK: I tend to associate photography with a certain notion of nostalgia, even though in the early 60s Malcolm Morley used images of that type to make fantastic hyperrealistic paintings that were particularly interesting in the context of their creation, just as Robert Longo did later with drawing. The impressionists used the medium as soon as they could, but in art history using photography was sometimes considered to be a sin. JB: Yes, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline were against using it, because their approach stemmed from the desire to peer inside themselves, or even from a kind of bestiality that was to be sublimated almost metaphysically. You implicitly denounced this through choosing such a photographic style at a time when artists were more concerned with recording the subconscious. Your attitude back then was slightly rebellious... AK: Indeed. That radicalism struck me as pretty mediocre. Even though Kline, De Kooning or Clyford Still were very sensitive, I found their paintings much better than their rhetoric. I didn't like the subjectivity and the rejection of the society they lived in. Personally, I favored simpler language and preferred to paint, if I may use this analogy, like William Shakespeare rather than James Joyce. Accessibility matters to me, but the very important question raised by the abstract expressionists was that of scale. When they moved toward larger formats, I also chose to develop, while depicting what I observed and experienced. With Guernica, which never gives a sense of spreading out, Pablo Picasso had shown us how to make a large painting without losing its soul. JB: You were also one of the frst to combine fgurative painting with pop elements and reiterate the importance of color. I have always liked your manner of observing the world around you, which is both intimate and cold. There's a sense of a pleasant atmosphere, because the settings shown in your canvases are highlighted, but always from a distance. AK: I tried to paint what was in front of me while mulling over the postures and body language, which explains my great interest in dance. I capture a number of poses, such as the man with his hands in his pockets or the woman holding a cigarette, that come from the movies or real life, especially toward the end of the 1960s. At parties back then, everybody smoked and drank. We lived in a state of exuberance and I also organized parties during which I would sketch my guests. In that buoyant period, appearances really mattered and I wanted to show that, like a 19th century realist painter chronicling his times. JB: Same here. I transform my daily life into a visual level, like Manet in his day. The question is, how do you capture the moment and immortalize it through the eye's subjectivity? How does that instant appear later in the frame of the painting? What interests me about your generation, Alex, unlike mine, is that the period was full of hope despite the Vietnam War and struggles over civil rights. My work—and this is linked to modern times— a fne line between utopia and dystopia, which sometimes intersect even. Your work seems to me to be more optimistic overall and without irony. AK: True, I removed any notion of irony a long time ago, to focus on the surface. In my paintings, there is no underlying narrative. When you're trying to capture a feeting presence, you cannot tell a hidden story. What about you, Jules? What's your position on narrative? JB: Without working out a whole scenario beforehand, my work may contain narrative because it's important for my paintings to have wide-ranging interpretative potential. I don't lock myself into a particular genre, but I am curious to explore what a more libertarian society could be like. For that reason, for instance, I sometimes show two paintings together. I like the juxtaposition, as in chess, of two alternate realities creating another narrative or story that you want to delve into. Conversely, I suspect you have a better idea of where you are going when you start a painting, and what it will look like. AK: Yes, and when I'm done, that means I can't keep at it because I trust my sensitivity. But I run slower now that the greater part of my life is behind me. Painting requires daily practice and I have built up such a body of work that a lot of pictures have been produced and I don't want to make too many now, even if I still convey the same energy in each painting. JB: As an artist, do you feel you have responsibilities or is it fne for art to be kind of superfcial, in the sense that the artist's goal is simply to depict his life and times? AK: I consider myself more of a poet, and one of the essential aspects of poetry is to ofer a path for the use of words. In painting, if you can guide people's gaze, that is the highest goal for a painter, even if no two people's gaze is the same. That doesn't mean I have no political awareness but I believe a painter must remain neutral. Anyway, you have to go with your own personality. I remember, even in high school, before Eisenhower was president, everybody claimed to be a communist militant, while all I wanted to do was play basketball and go dancing! At the time, all the great art critics, such as Harold Rosenberg or Clement Greenberg were communist sympathizers. It was very trendy then, like reading Freud. I don't know if I'm superfcial, but it is true that my work says nothing more than what it shows. It is detached and out in the open, because I see myself more as a true nihilist.