The thing about Alex Katz is that he never fitted in. His parents immigrated from Russia to a New York neighbourhood with just one other Jewish family; he says he was known as “that crazy Katz kid”. When he found his style, about a decade after art school, it was also out of joint: “I didn’t fit in with the old Realists, I didn’t fit in with the Abstract Expressionists, I didn’t fit in with Pop Art,” he says. “There were a lot of parts of me that were not connecting at all.”
While Pollock and Rothko were experimenting with energy and colour, Katz was painting people. In the 1960s, he began documenting the New York art scene, painting poet friends like Frank O’Hara and Edwin Denby as they mingled at loft parties across lower Manhattan. And while Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns introduced politics into their art, Katz painted the lake and trees around his summer home in Maine.
So now, looking back, is he glad he never fitted in?
“Yeah,” he says. “I think it worked out great!”
As we walk around Katz’s studio, I ask if he feels he’s taking more risks now.
“I’m still taking risks, is what it is,” he says. “Most painters don’t continue to take risks. They flatten out and just paint masterpieces.”
So where does that impulse come from?
“I don’t know where the fire comes from. It’s competitiveness, it’s trying to make people take me seriously, it’s to show other painters my age that I’m much better ... and it’s drive. There’s no one alive that does this. The combination of the nerve and skill. You take a 10-ftx14-ft painting and just put one coat of paint on it and then paint into it? I never would have done that 10 years ago.”
When I ask what makes him nervous, he points me to vibrant green strokes on a vast canvas painted yellow. Katz is starting to paint abstract again, for the first time since the early 1960s. “I wanted to paint grass. This is my third shot at it. Everyone liked it, but it still isn’t what I wanted.” To me, it looks like rolling hills.
“When you’re extending yourself, you can’t possibly know what you’re doing,” he says. “When it’s a portrait like I’ve done before, I know where I am. That one there,” he points to a portrait of a man and a woman, “is a masterpiece. The hair is a lesson in painting. But on some of these, I have no idea.”
Katz and I walk into Cipriani Downtown. Cipriani is a New York institution. Zagat describes it as a place where “pretty people [and] billionaires ... go for well-prepared Italian dishes at absurdly expensive tabs”. Katz is also a New York institution in his own right, so I assumed before meeting him that he would kiss the maître d’ and order “the usual”. But that’s not the vibe.
“You know, Ada and I never ate here,” he tells me. “It’s sort of like an out-of-town place. Recently we got really desperate and tried it, and we found it actually wasn’t really that bad!” The host seats us in a quiet corner in the back. “I usually eat sardines for lunch,” he says as we browse the menu. I laugh and prod him: now that he’s here, should we have a glass of wine? He has a better suggestion.
“You want a Bellini? That’s what they make here.”
Katz asks for a lentil soup and the burrata, but they’re out of both. He sighs. “OK, I’ll get the special.” I order the spaghetti with branzino, which the waiter promises me is the best pasta on the menu: spaghetti sautéed with cherry tomatoes and topped with European bass.
“She’d like a Bellini, too,” he tells the waiter. “Mine comes with the special,” he says to me, and chuckles. “The special here is a real bargain.”
As the waiter drops off our drinks and a bowl of breadsticks, I ask Katz about the recent auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The biggest Katz sale was a self-portrait from 1957, which sold for $855,000. A work by British artist David Hockney, to whom Katz is sometimes compared, made news by selling for $90m. I’m curious how that feels.
“Well I think David Hockney and his paintings are completely gracious,” he says. “They’re not one bit pretentious. There’s no angst. There’s no forced masculinity. There’s no forced seriousness. The images are all arresting. There are all kinds of mitigating factors that change prices, and they change up and they change down. So I don’t think it’s outrageous. A painting is a very complicated object, and they turn it into a commodity.”