Artists David Salle and Alex Katz have been friends for well over 30 years. In that time they have had hundreds of conversations about the art of painting and the history of the avant-garde, conversations that often touch on considerations of moral philosophy and general cultural history—the macro in the micro. Katz has also maintained a kind of running commentary on society and social manners, fashion and style, politics, and the dramatic arts. (If you care to go there, he can also talk knowledgeably about military history, how to renovate a loft cheaply and efficiently, how to buy a suit that you actually look good in, as well as innumerable other things.) In this interview, he manages to clarify some thorny problems in contemporary art history in addition to giving rare insight into how he sees himself.
Salle conducted this interview on the occasion of the exhibition Alex Katz (Essl Museum, Vienna, September 15, 2012 – January 6, 2013); it was originally published in the exhibition’s catalogue and Interview Magazine Germany. The Rail is pleased to reproduce it here on the occasion of Katz’s upcoming exhibitions Alex Katz: Landscapes (Museum Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich, March 7 – May 12, 2013), Alex Katz: New York/Maine (Museum der Moderne, Salzburg, March 9 – July 7, 2013), and Alex Katz & Félix Vallotton (Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, March 23 – June 9, 2013).
David Salle (Rail): I know you’ve been interested in Genghis Khan for a while. Can you say why? What is it generally that interests you in military history?
Alex Katz: Oh! Many things: the social attitudes, the problem solving. Genghis Khan is a very pragmatic mind. It’s fascinating, his solutions to things. He was getting a lot of people saying terrible things about him, and he found that the Chinese had printing presses, so he had it printed and sent in advance to wherever he was going.
Rail: What’s the place of imagination in art? Of originality?
Katz: Originality? That’s a combination of being inside your own head and responding to everything outside. It’s a weird combination, a lot of artists are outside, and a lot are inside, it’s the combination of the two that makes something original.
Rail: Can there ever be an agreement on quality in art? What has quality and what does not?
Katz: No. Quality is subject to fashion. It has to do with audience. What is the audience? It’s like, there are lot of movies for a lot of people who like them. And there are some movies for a few people who like it. It’s hard to say but quality is a sort of class thing. The high class audience, so to speak, more or less determines what the quality is. High class intellectually.
Rail: How much of that discussion of quality in art is purely cultural?
Katz: It’s all inside of each culture. Each culture has its own definition of what it likes.
Rail: Do you have any thoughts about, or an image of, what art might be 20 years hence? 40 years? Is it evolving in any kind of way that can be charted or prognosticated?
Katz: No, not at all. I can’t. It keeps changing all the time. I guess it’s again like fashion. The hems go up, the hems go down. The art is now, now it’s very exterior, at this point. It might become interior, or it might just stay that way for a long time.
Rail: How do you think your work will look to the initiated audience in 30 years? 50 years?
Katz: I haven’t the vaguest idea. I hope it will look more like it makes more sense, to more people.
Rail: Does every style become fashionable eventually, or are some things beyond the pale? Is anything beyond the reach of art?
Katz: Oh there are things which are definitely beyond the pale. There are things that just don’t work in certain environments. I think a painter without some sense of decoration has a difficult time in New York City. But nothing is beyond the reach of art. Art will stoop very low.
Rail: Would art change if it were cheap again?
Katz: I think it’s relative to the audience. When it started there wasn’t that much money around. In the, 50s there weren’t many sales, now it’s exploded. There are a number of factors that make it that way, but I think there is enough art out on any level to satisfy any public. There is a lot of cheap art. There is not only expensive art.
Rail: So you think our perception of art has changed due to rising prices over the past 50 years?
Katz: With the general public? Yes. Art has become more legitimate. It was fugitive in the ’50s. Now it’s legitimate, people get masters and doctorates, that has all changed. I think the public’s perception of an artist is entirely different. He’s a legitimate factor in our society and consequently art is. So I think the prices convince some people that art is legitimate.
Rail: What should be the penalty for willfully wrong-headed art criticism?
Katz: Chop off their heads! I don’t know.
Rail: And who should decide what is wrong-headed?
Katz: The connoisseur of art.
Rail: Scorsese used to say, whenever something in a film offended him, that the culprits should have to go to “film jail.” What would the offenses be that would land one in “art jail?”
Katz: Usually, who ever makes a real misjudgment pays for it.
Rail: Can you think of any examples?
Katz: No. No, mostly I am thinking of plagiarism. If someone takes something but doesn’t steal it, just borrows it a little bit, it doesn’t work. It only works for a little while.
Rail: Agree or disagree with (or modify) this statement: “Conceptual art is the refuge of the un-talented.”
Katz: Oh no! Some of them are very talented, just not talented in painting. There are very brilliant amusing things. It’s like theater. I think a lot of conceptual art holds up very well to Hollywood movies.
Rail: How do you think of conceptual art—as a style or a genre?
Katz: Conceptual art is a kind of interesting cultural activity and I think early people who were non-materialistic were just bringing a set of morals from one place and taking it to another where it didn’t belong. A moral judgment on the commercialization of art. Early conceptual art was a moral issue, but the morals had no business being in the art world. The second part, the neo-conceptual art, is purely entertainment. I don’t want to say it’s pandering, but it’s for a very broad audience. Neo-conceptual art is almost like rock ’n’ roll. Some guy had enough money to give away cars, give away watches. It makes a real engagement to people, people like it, and they understand it. It functions very well for a very broad audience. It goes into the entertainment business, and builds up big box offices in museums.
Rail: Do you think its influence will ever wane?
Katz: No, I think the public likes a lot of it and therefore it will continue. It has nothing to do with, and is very far removed from painting and sculpture. It’s more in the entertainment business, there is a public and museums pander to the public, so I think it has a healthy future.
Rail: Is there anything you consider your liability or limitation as a painter?
Katz: I am not expressionistic. My work is not expressionist, very little passion. And I don’t really care at this point.
Rail: Not that it would in any way be a limitation, but what are some things that you would not paint? Any subject matter?
Katz: Well there are some things other people painted very well and they don’t have to be painted over again by me. Matisse’s interiors, Picasso’s still lifes, Picasso’s solid form. They’ve all been done. And one thing I don’t want to do is things already done. As for particular subject matter, I don’t like narratives, basically.
Rail: Did you ever imagine a different kind of career for yourself—a different kind of painter?
Katz: Not really. Most of it is sort of unconscious to do, you just start doing it. And then people tell you what you are. The career is completely, you know, I never expected to have that much worldly contact. I started out in a place where there was very little chance of anything like that happening. I thought I’d be making paintings for a very small audience my whole life. The art world wasn’t as large, and I didn’t think of being famous at all.
Rail: What is the role of “talent” in art?
Katz: Talent is like openers in a card game. It’s a little bit of excess. In my experience it’s not a huge factor. I think intelligence, will, and ambition are much more important than talent.
Rail: How does someone know where their real talents lie? How did you know?
Katz: You look at the paintings. It was all intuitive. I knew when I was connected. When I was connected I just kept going with it. In painting, most of your knowledge is unconscious. And the thing is to try to use the unconscious in determining what you do. That is the thing that I follow, more or less. You can call it instinct. That’s what it is.
Rail: Was there ever anyone you came in contact with, another painter, or a thinker, who changed the course of your art?
Katz: They didn’t change it, they altered it. Everyone alters, I don’t think you make it all by yourself. People that like your work, help you, because you are not sure. Sometimes when you paint a picture you don’t know whether it’s good or bad. You just know it’s there. You know you finished it and that was that. And people tell you. I think artists make a community. It’s very far away from the genius idea from the 19th century. You’re re-adjusted and stabilized by the people who look at your paintings, by what they tell you. You get a different view and you say, well, what does that person like? And then maybe you find out they like paintings you don’t like.
Rail: I find that a lot of younger artists are kind of tone-deaf about dance—something that was taken for granted in my generation, and obviously yours. Let’s help out the younger generation: What do you like about dance?
Katz: Oh, it combines a lot of things. It’s a hybrid. There’s the physicality, the motion, the athleticism. The translation from music into motion, it’s almost an internal thing, the music gets inside the people who dance and it’s an art in itself. But it’s more hybrid than painting. Painting is singular. With dancing you have music and you have sets, you have costumes, you have a choreographer. And so it’s much more hybrid and closer to opera than to painting. Plus dance certainly doesn’t have a narrative, so for me it isn’t as stupid as some operas.
Rail: Is the ratio of good to boring art a constant? There are a lot more people calling themselves artists today, and there seems to be a lot more boring art—or is it just me?
Katz: Oh no. I think every artist has its public. And every public deserves its artists. I assume the painters do the best they can do and then they have their different publics. I remember once talking about an artist, this artist is for hotel art, and the guy said no it’s motel art. Everything has a place.
Rail: I mean this in only a semi-joking way: Do you think the ratio is the same as it was in, say, the ’50s? Because there is also a lot of extremely interesting art.
Katz: It has to do with the way you think about it. When I was young I used to go to the Whitney Biennial and there were two paintings I found interesting. The rest was just not interesting. What’s interesting is what counts. I don’t like the idea of good and bad. It’s either interesting or not. And different artists are interesting for different people.
Rail: Does more art interest you today than in the past?
Katz: It’s not the same as now. How much capacity does one have for art? They used to say there are 100 interesting artists in New York. Now it’s a world wide thing. I don’t think you can be interested in that many artists. I think the early ’60s had a fantastic amount of interesting artists.
Rail: Do you think there are any “universals” in art?
Katz: Some I guess. Because you have cultural differences that make things more interesting or less interesting. But in Herzog’s movie about the 30,000 year old cave paintings [Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010], I imagine most civilized people will get them. That’s not difficult. Sometimes it’s difficult, because of the cultural differences you see things completely differently. The idea of universality in art, to put it in concrete terms, would be art with a broad audience rather than an art with a local audience. The word universal is a left over from modernism.
Rail: How do you account for the fact that art from distant, pre-modern times can still speak to us?
Katz: You relate to ideas! French painting is very plastic and very contained in a way. Picasso has a black line around things and Matisse had lines around things. They are really contained, they don’t expand. And after Jackson Pollock and de Kooning, all of a sudden Veronese and Tintoretto looked great! It was related to Thomas Hart Benton before that. It just changed the way you perceive, the ideas about art changed. There are no constants. Everything is moving all the time, and there are different ideas. In art school I was told that Raphael couldn’t color and then looking at the one in the British Museum, it became an apparition through the wall. The colors made sense. It’s an idea. Ideas change, the perception of the old keeps moving. I read a book on El Greco, I got all the books on El Greco, and all the books put him down. They were written in the late 19th, early 20th century. One of them said he had astigmatism, that’s why he painted his weird paintings. El Greco was very influential in the ’50s. And now he is not that interesting. To me, I think there are some terrific pictures, but basically he was a provincial mannerist, but perhaps he will be something else to people in 20 years.
Rail: How do you think a Martian would react to one of your big heads?
Katz: Ah, I don’t know. A Martian might think it’s the greatest thing since toast!