It's a coup for both parties. Alex Katz has become the newest member of the stable at Gavin Brown's Enterprise, adding luster to the West Village gallery's fusion of hip and blue-chip. This Saturday Katz opens his first solo at the gallery, a suite of 13 monumental new canvases-large, brightly-lit heads against a dark background, fields of flowers and one nocturnal landscape with the composition of a Rorschach blot. The show runs through Oct. 8.
Charismatic at 84, Katz seems much younger, and he's a natural fit with Brown's other artists-among them Urs Fischer, Laura Owens, Elizabeth Peyton and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Like Peyton, Katz has long focused in his portraiture on the denizens of his artistic and literary milieu, as well as friends and family, particularly his wife Ada Katz, who was the subject of his much lauded 2007 show at the Jewish Museum in New York. He often paints landscapes, as well. Cool, stylish works that strip away detail, his paintings remain timeless, even when presenting details that identify them with a specific period. Perhaps more than any other artist, Katz exemplifies the American century, creating images that radiate bourgeois affluence. They feel particularly welcome in an era of diminished expectations.
In something of a surprise, Katz requested that the images in the show's catalogue be reproduced in black-and-white. As A.i.A. sat down to talk with Katz and Brown, the artist was seeing the catalogue for the first time.
ALEX KATZ I wanted a black and white catalogue.
FAYE HIRSCH That's an interesting choice.
KATZ Well, you have to make some demands.
HIRSCH The work is so classical, somehow the black and white seems to fit.
KATZ The work is very classical. But also the black and white relates to those old catalogues, before you had the color.
GAVIN BROWN There's an obsession with getting color right, with having that one-to-one relationship. Which of course. . .
KATZ It's ridiculous.
BROWN There's something almost more modern about this.
KATZ More up-to-date.
BROWN It's almost a perversity. Clearly, we could have made a color catalogue.
KATZ You accept color as real when you see it in a book. But whenever I make color catalogues, I throw away the paintings. All I want to do is make the pictures look good. Forget about the painting. I don't believe in verisimilitude. The black and white solves the problem: you know it's not the painting.
HIRSCH I wanted to talk with both of you about your new association. Alex: what appealed to you about the gallery?
KATZ It's a red-hot, open place—the hottest gallery in the world. And the space is ravishing. I mean, it was between Gavin Brown and Gagosian. And I said to Gagosian, "You've got better taste, he's got more style." But this gallery is as good as Gagosian's uptown gallery. This is a really gorgeous space. The difference is that Gavin adjusted the space to the paintings. In most galleries, you have to adjust the paintings to the space.
BROWN How did I adjust the space to the paintings?
KATZ You opened doors from the last show. You decided where the walls went. Adjusting the gallery to what you were going to put in it.
HIRSCH It sure is a big change from Rirkrit's show. I'll give it that.
KATZ Yeah-in Rirkrit's show he adjusted the gallery to the artist. And this is a completely different thing, and he made another adjustment. No one does that.
BROWN Not that I don't see a difference I suppose, but the approach is always the same. With Alex as with Rirkrit, each one is trying to tell the truth. You just try to make the space available in kind of the best way you can. I find it to be such a thrill to be able to do a show by Rirkrit, and then one by Alex. There's a full range of the human voice there.
HIRSCH A good deal of your program, Gavin, is about being social. Rirkrit's project, and Elizabeth Peyton painting her friends. Alex's work, too, has shown a culture, and a society.
KATZ To me it seems a very natural fit.
HIRSCH Plus you're hip, Alex.
KATZ Yeah, definitely. [laughs] I spoke to Richard Armstrong before it all happened. And he said, "You have no choice. You have to go either to Gavin Brown, or to Gagosian." They both came to my studio the same week.
BROWN It's funny how that happened.
HIRSCH How aware were you, Alex, of Gavin's program?
BROWN Alex has been coming to the gallery since I was on Broome Street.
KATZ I showed with him on Broome Street in the mid '90s. A three-man show with drawings—Elizabeth and Andy Warhol and myself. That's how we met. Then for the Peter Doig show he rented a space on 7th Avenue, because his space was not right. I was very impressed with that. And with the show.
BROWN The artists in the gallery are very excited. They see what I see, I suppose: someone who communicates very clearly about who we are right now. And that "right now" has constantly moved with the moment. To go back to Rirkrit again. I hear the word "social" and I suppose I agree, but with perhaps a different meaning of the word. If Rirkrit's work is "us," Alex's work is "us," also.
HIRSCH "Us" as a culture, "us" as a society?"
BROWN "Us" as a species.
HIRSCH Alex, your work always feels very much of the present.
KATZ It's about the present tense, and the light. Gavin got it. We were sitting at Rob Pruitt's and Gavin came over and told me what he likes about my paintings. And I thought, "Oh, he gets it." It was the sensation of the light. It's an immediate present, is what I'm trying to make. A lot of people see it as more commodity-oriented.
BROWN I do, too. [laughs]
KATZ I mean in regard to the subject matter. The subject matter makes the image but the light makes the magic.
BROWN What's interesting about the show is that there are obvious pictorial differences between the wildflowers and the portraits. But to me—I wouldn't want to speak for you—they're equivalent.
KATZ I keep changing; I get bored. I have a nice balance, and I go into a series, and around the eighth or ninth picture, all of a sudden it's boring. And it's finished. Before I did these black backgrounds, I did ladies wearing sunglasses. I had the most perfect balance I ever had. I ended up selling the paintings on the telephone, to [Thaddeus] Ropac. I said, "I did another one, as good as the last one you got," and he said, "Swell, I'll buy it." They all just disappeared. I never got to show them. I kept one. He said, "Can you make some more?" And I said, "No! It's gone."
After that, I said, "I did enough of that kind of light—I want to do another kind." So I started with the faces, at night, with heavy shadows, flat, because I had been working with modeling more. Side lights. That's what these are—blam! That kind of light. It's less definition, and more impact.
HIRSCH Do you feel the light in the portraits is similar to the light in the flowers?
KATZ They're both the immediate present. It's the sensation of looking at flowers, rather than their depiction. The flowers are really goofy if you start to compare them to real flowers.
BROWN They fall off the edge of being flowers. They are marks.
KATZ Like I say, they're goofy. I want a sensation. I say, well, let's see what happens if I do these strange things and stick them in here.
HIRSCH How would you compare them with Warhol's impatiens?
KATZ Warhol's are very descriptive. He was an illustrator. He drew very well.
BROWN Wonderful line.
KATZ Very nice. Very refined.
HIRSCH Can you speak about the monumentality of the portraits?
KATZ I'm dealing with "life-size." Life-size doesn't exist. It's all in perception. When you go to a movie, you see these big faces, but they're life-size to you. Right? And you're looking at 20-foot heads. You tell me what life-size is. [laughs] Those Giacometti men? They're off in the distance, but they're life-size. Movies, TV. Your brain scales the figure to life-size—not over-size or under-size. Right? The portraits seem life-size to me.
HIRSCH There's always such a sense of optimism in your work.
BROWN They look like what they are. Beautiful humans in the void.
KATZ "No sad songs for me." That was in that movie about Serge Gainsbourg. [Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life]
HIRSCH It was such a quality in your "Ada" show at the Jewish Museum. She seemed to be about the good life.
KATZ Civilized. Her father was Italian, a socialist. He had to leave Italy to avoid going to jail, because he was printing big posters that were anti-Mussolini. His idea was that everything modern was good. And she has the same thing. No sentimentality. It's kind of a political thing.
HIRSCH Do you have that too?
KATZ No, I don't have anything like that. That's embodied in Ada, in the way she presents herself, in the way she dresses and everything. She has kind of a movie-star presence.
HIRSCH Is there a certain kind of face you look for?
KATZ It's pretty intuitive. Some faces just look great for my paintings. Like the one of Anna Georgis. I saw her at a party and thought, "Gee, this is a fantastic looking lady. I could really use her in this series." She was a total stranger.
HIRSCH You're drawn to beautiful women.
KATZ Yes, I always have been. I'm a sucker for beauty, and elegance. It winds up being something that's inevitable.
KATZ Yeah-when you strip things away. Elegance has to be simple. It's the difference between Napoleon and Wellington. Wellington was elegant, and the other guy's French, and perfect and fussy. English styling is much more elegant.
HIRSCH One thing you're not, Alex, is Courbet.
KATZ He's a fascinating, interesting painter. But he is very sweaty.
HIRSCH All of you look pretty happy about all this.
KATZ It's like a miracle! I have a gallery that's custom-made for my paintings. Beautiful light! A gorgeous space! Where do you get anything like that? And it's the right paintings in the right place at the right time. I have no qualms about it.
BROWN And you couldn't necessarily describe why that is, but it is.
KATZ It's like you pull the slot machine, and you come up with three cherries.
BROWN And with that Rorschach landscape at the end.
KATZ That was your idea. That was a killer.
BROWN The premise of the painting is so strange.
KATZ With that landscape, you're in the landscape. It wraps around you. Most landscapes are pictures that you look at. Some seem to go right through the wall.
HIRSCH It's almost like a road map of what comes before.
BROWN Infinity, for example.
HIRSCH And artificiality. It really throws you off.
KATZ Well, you really don't know where you are in that painting because it spreads out, past you. It spreads-but I didn't get what I wanted.
HIRSCH So it's not successful to you?
KATZ Well, you accept it as a painting. The painting looks good, but it's not what I wanted.
BROWN I think it's a terrific painting. A hard painting, quite brittle.
KATZ You'd have to be an idiot to destroy a good painting because you didn't succeed with your idea. Next time!
BROWN It's a logical end-point. You can't go any further.