Renowned painter Katz reflects on career

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Photo by Alex Katz.

Yale students and art enthusiasts packed into the Sculpture Building at 36 Edgewood Ave. Monday night to witness a conversation between two art legends.

For the most recent installment of the Monday Night Lecture Series hosted by the Yale University School of Art, Robert Storr, the school’s dean, sat down with the iconic American figurative artist Alex Katz and discussed the ups and downs of his prolific 60-year career.

Figurative artist Alex Katz is modest about his work:
Alex Katz
Figurative artist Alex Katz is modest about his work: "I'm not real talented, but I'm not untalented. The skills I have were made through hard work."
Alex Katz

Fresh from a recent trip to Spain, Katz’s paintings have received a surge of recognition lately and his reception in Europe was “uplifting,” Katz said. When asked about his recent success, Katz credited it with his departure from pop art in the later portion of his career.

“You can paint the right paintings,” Katz said. “But painting them at the right time, now that’s the cherry on top.”

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Katz was brought up in an exceedingly cultural family, he said, and his artistic aspirations were supported beginning in his youth. Katz noted that for his father, the career of an artist was held in the highest esteem, and in his early teens Katz entered a vocational school where he was able to focus primarily on visual arts. There Katz mastered the process of antique drawing — a type of highly detailed sketch-work — and in 1946 he was accepted to The Cooper Union, where he studied the Bauhaus and Cubist styles.

“Learning systems is of no use until you can embed them into your own conscience,” he said. “I’m not real talented, but I’m not untalented. The skills I have were made through hard work.”

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Katz made a living producing illustrations for various publications in New York City. Among his contemporaries was the celebrated pop artist and print maker Andy Warhol, for whom Katz had few kind words.

“Warhol took elements of my style, the large faces and flat surfaces,” Katz said. “He took them and made them original. I was obviously bitter.”

During the discussion between Katz and Storr, the subject matter of Katz’s paintings was among the major points of interest.

When asked by an audience member whether he only paints a certain class of people, Katz said he has a preference for creative personalities.

“I don’t paint upper-middle class people,” Katz answered. “I paint poor poets and refined bohemians.”

Although Katz himself claims his subject matter is mundane in order to emphasize his painting, Storr said he has been critical of Katz’s focus in subject matter.

Despite their “somewhat complicated” 30-year relationship, Storr said he is a fervent admirer and purchaser of Katz’s work. Storr recognized Katz’s lasting impact on Yale, particularly since Katz has been a guest professor at the School of Art in the past. Recently, School of Art students visited Katz’s studio in Lincolnville, Maine.

“It is great that Katz was willing to come in and speak with us,” Storr said. “He tends not to hang around places like Yale too often, but he is serious about his painting and discussing painting. Katz has an increasingly crucial role in an art form that is continuing to be dominated by the avante-garde, and quite frankly, whose future is in question.”

The 83-year-old Katz currently splits his time between New York City and Maine, and he continues to paint to this day. He is currently exploring the artificial realm of painting, with an emphasis on limited human interaction and fashion.

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