When leaders at the Tampa Museum of Art got surprising news that Alex Katz would be stopping by to see his exhibit and mingle, it was a big deal.
Some have called the 89-year-old New Yorker one of the most important living American artists. He is visiting the museum for a walkthrough Wednesday evening, then meeting an exclusive group of donors and museum members and answering questions. The large exhibit of works by Katz opens to the public Thursday.
Katz's work, especially his portraits, are instantly recognizable. The most common word used for them is reductive, meaning he hones an image to its most essential linear components, devoid of context. In his paintings, prints and sculptures, he often uses vibrant colors but even those have a coolness, always figurative but with an abstract quality. His style lends itself equally well to black and white, in which we see most clearly the severity in his editing down to essentials.
The collection of 65 works in "Alex Katz: Black And White" are mostly monochromatic prints supplemented by some in color, plus three paintings that demonstrate the effective back-and-forth with which Katz likes to experiment and the strong structural support of the line that underlies all his art. They include portraits, landscapes and still lifes from 1969 to 2016.
Katz's parents emigrated from Russia before he was born and he grew up in New York. Katz studied at the Cooper Union School of Art in New York and then the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. His work has been in exhibitions throughout the world and in the permanent collections of museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.
In a recent interview, Katz, discussed his career and oeuvre.
What is your earliest memory of experiencing art?
My parents had artistic inclinations. There were a lot of paintings in the house. We had moved to the suburbs in Queens and they painted the living room a dull yellow with violet trim. It was very elegant before anyone realized it. There was a sun parlor painted pale pink with maroon triangles. My bedroom was a dark green because it was supposed to be more restful. It was all very unusual and it made me think in terms of color.
Before you studied at Cooper Union, beginning at 19, did you have formal training?
There were three other (young) artists on the block in the new suburb. One was three years older and he went to trade school. He convinced me to go there instead of a regular high school because there was more time for art, half a day. It was very commercial, more for illustration and advertising. But I didn't feel competent to be a professional. After a year in the Navy, I went to Cooper Union to study advertising to be an illustrator. The fine arts department was very small but I took classes and found I enjoyed painting. I graduated among the top of my class and had scholarships. The director asked me if I preferred Yale or Skowhegan. Yale didn't mean nothing to me. A degree to be an artist seemed ridiculous.
Which artists did you admire as a young man?
I liked Miro and Picasso a lot. Matisse and Cezanne were big deals. I saw works by Marsden Hartley and liked them, too. The Museum of Modern Art had all these great paintings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, not as good. Their collection wasn't very interesting to me.
What does "reductive" mean to you?
Simplified. I thought Van Gogh didn't need all those strokes.
You have said you aren't interested in narrative art, but by virtue of the figurative style you use — especially your portraits — don't you invite a narrative element in viewers' minds?
They're not narrative; they're symbols. They refer to other things. They're not a story, like a crucifixion.
You destroyed thousands of your early works. Have you every regretted that?
No regrets whatsoever. Making and destroying them was a process. When I got into Cooper Union, I had one of the highest scores on the entrance test because I had a high art aptitude, but I had no real skills. By the time I got out, I had developed skills. There was no reason to keep them. I had gotten the benefit from them.
You're a prolific printmaker. What is its appeal compared to painting?
I'm interested in the reductive quality of prints. In the 60s, there was a new energy in printmaking. I'll do a painting and wonder if it would make a print, too. I like the process of working with great print-makers. They present me with ideas.
Do you ever use a computer?
Never. I don't have a computer, just a cell phone. I'm talking to you on a land line.
You have been married to your wife, Ada, for almost 60 years. She has been the subject of many works, a muse. What has made this relationship so enduring?
We have similar backgrounds and values. Our differences are interesting, too. We connect on a lot of different levels. She's as bright as anyone I know and great looking. She's the perfect model with a highly developed style in her face, her clothing, her gestures. She likes to be noticed.