Poetics and Style; Alex Katz and the Look of Poetry

Alex Katz, Autumn 30, 2023, oil on linen, 153.2 × 214.6 centimetres. © Alex Katz / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / CARCC, Ottawa 2024. Image: Richard Gray Gallery, New York / Chicago.

In the following no-nonsense interview Alex Katz mentions that one of his favourite Frank O’Hara poems is “To the Harbormaster,” an ode in 17 lines on the necessity of adventure and the possibility of failure. It had been included in O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency published in 1957 by Grove Press. Alex is a good reader of poetry and he hears the echoes of Alfred Lord Tennyson, as if the poet were a modern-day Ulysses turning his body-vessel towards the unpredictable winds of human experience.

“To the Harbormaster” employs a seafaring metaphor to describe the turbulence of a love affair; it is generally regarded as written to and about the artist Larry Rivers, who became O’Hara’s lover after they met at a party. But Katz is unconcerned with an amorous reading of the poem; instead, he regards it as “my master plan for life. It’s great. It’s so complicated.” You can apply the challenging quest the poet/mariner sets for himself as equivalent to the one encountered by the painter. “I am always tying up / and then deciding to depart” works equally well as a description from dockside as it does from inside the artist’s studio. The poem has about it an air of romantic drama, so that not only is he susceptible to being caught in moorings, tides and storms, but the poet can also declare that “the terrible channels … are not all behind me.”

Alex Katz would agree. He has been exhibiting for more than 70 years now (his first one-person exhibition at New York’s Roko Gallery in 1954 was when he met O’Hara) and he still says he is “trying to do things better, and I’m very insecure about it.” Mixed in with the insecurity was more than a tincture of its opposite. He may have picked up the tone of the poet in “To the Harbormaster” when he admits that “I am unable / to understand the forms of my vanity,” but in an interview in Border Crossings in 2002 Katz said, “I can do more things with painting on a bigger scale than anyone. Period.” He was right. There was no vanity or hubris involved in his assessment. His paintings decidedly deliver what he calls “a lot of image-kick.”

While Frank O’Hara was Katz’s “hero,” he was only one among a generation of poets, writers, choreographers and critics who became central to his artistic life in New York. That life was elaborated in “Collaborations with Poets,” an exhibition at the Poetry Foundation in New York from February 18 to May 20, 2023. (An excellent book written and organized by Debra Bricker Balken and published by Gray, Chicago/New York, documents Alex Katz’s ongoing publishing projects with poets and other artists.)

It was a period in which the recognitions and learning moved in both directions. The poets recognized in the early ’50s that painting was the dominant art movement and they were paying close attention to what the painters were doing. For Katz, who was just entering the art world with the intention of being a figurative painter at a time when abstraction was in the ascendency, poets became his most appreciative audience. Katz was looking for “a lot of energy” and he found that energy in the way that poets used “generic images in a sophisticated way.” His first collaboration was with John Ashbery, whose poetics embodied what Katz understood to be “the most sensational styling of my time.” Additionally, he discovered that the choreographer Paul Taylor, with whom he collaborated for 30 years, “was a great stylist.” Katz has said, “I think there’s nothing more interesting than appearance,” and he has consistently emphasized the flatness of the surface and pushed the content to the back of his painting. “When I leave out a lot of naturalistic details, there’s an elegant style, which makes the whole thing cohesive. Things get Alex Katzized.” In the 2002 Border Crossings interview, he defined style as “taking out the inessential to get a great overall.”

“To the Harbormaster” ends with the possibility of not realizing what you wanted to do; if the vessel sinks, it may be an answer to “the reasoning of the eternal voices.” Those voices control what the poet laments as “the waves which have kept me from reaching you.” In my reading, the poet/mariner becomes the painter/adventurer, “the tryer of new things,” “the one who pushes myself out as much as I can.” In his now decades-long journey, it seems that no impediments keep Alex Katz and his paintings from reaching us. If you want incontrovertible evidence of the connections he has made, look at the online video of his entrance on the opening night of “Alex Katz: Gathering,” his career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which includes paintings, oil sketches, drawings, collages, prints and free-standing “cut-outs.” The exhibition ran from October 21, 2023, to February 20, 2024. Katz attended the opening night dressed in white—matching suit, shirt and shoes—and he sports a just-right, elegant yellow tie. As he moves along the lower walkway, he is cheered by people filling the atrium and on every level of the art-filled rotunda. He is bespoke and beloved. He is royalty. He is a rock star. In the slipstream of his unparalleled life as a painter, he left the terrible channels behind.

The following interview was recorded in person with Alex Katz on March 6, 2024, in New York. We are grateful to Valerie Carberry, a partner with Gray Gallery, who asked the questions Border Crossings had sent.

Alex Katz, Lake Light, 1992, oil on canvas, 168.3 × 198.8 centimetres. Photo: Michael Meisen, Frankfurt am Main. © Alex Katz. Courtesy Stiftung Kunst und Natur, Bad Heilbrunn.

BORDER CROSSINGS: As the Richard Gray Gallery book called Collaborations with Poets indicates, you did a fair amount of collaborating with poets in the ’60s. What was the affinity you had with poets that would have made you such a ready and willing collaborator?

ALEX KATZ: My work was accessible to the poets. They became my audience.

Why were the poets so responsive to your work?

I think we were all using a lot of generic images in a sophisticated way.

You told an interviewer that the “form and tactics” of poetry in the ’60s “was more stimulating than painting.” What did you mean? What about it was stimulating?

Well, I thought the poetry scene was very radical and had a lot of energy. That’s where I wanted to be.

And what was lacking in the stimulation you weren’t getting from the painters?

My painting was perfectly okay, but the painting audience wasn’t there. People didn’t really get my painting.

I can think of a couple of things that tell me you were in a community built on relationships, closeness and a shared recognition of the value of art. Years ago Meeka and I were having drinks with Irving and Lucy Sandler after a talk, and hanging in their living room was your portrait of them on their wedding day. This was a close enough community of artists and writers that you were giving wedding gifts. I’m saying that from the outside it seems like a whole world, a group of like-minded people all after the same thing.

I think we had fairly common tastes in things. There was sort of a right-wing public, and part of them didn’t get it at all; then there was the modern academic world, which we all felt not part of.

Were there things that you could learn from poets that helped you as a painter?

Maybe the idea of being a little less repressed.

In the 1978 series “Face of the Poet,” you do 14 aquatints of second-generation New York School poets, including Ted Berrigan, Carter Ratcliff, Peter Schjeldahl, Rene Ricard, Alice Notley, Kenward Elmslie and Gerard Malanga. How did you choose which poets to include?

The ’50s poets were different from the ’60s poets. I was friends with the ’50s poets, and then I discovered the ’60s poets and found they had a new style.

In an article in Vogue in 1984 on Paul Taylor, you wrote about being taken to a dance performance at Hunter College in 1960 by the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby, and you wrote that when the performance was over—the combination of Edwin’s explanation and Paul’s dancing—your idea, not only of what dance could be, but what art was, had been altered. You’re saying you were learning from these artists in other disciplines?

Definitely. Paul was a great stylist, and he could see new things before other people. From Paul I learned not to be static.

Alex Katz, Black Brook 11, 1990, oil on linen, 274.32 × 365.76 centimetres. Photo: Paul Takeuchi. © Alex Katz / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / CARCC, Ottawa 2024. Image: Richard Gray Gallery, New York / Chicago.

You went on to do set and costume designs for a number of Paul Taylor’s dances. Was the transition to theatrical image making an easy one for you?

Oh yeah. I didn’t know I could it that well and that easy. Paul had a falling-out with Rauschenberg, and he needed someone to design for Spoleto—he was going to perform at the Spoleto Festival—and Edwin said he thought I could do it. And sure enough, I could! I really liked doing it. It was a lot of fun. I ended up doing sets with Paul for 30 years.

In 1959 you made a painting of Paul Taylor on a grey/green ground; he wears only a dance top and leotards. He is formidable and gorgeous, but his large feet are splayed across the ground, the toes a mangle of flesh-coloured paint. Everything else in the painting is precise except the feet. Why?

Well, it was the best I could do in the time allotted.

You paint Denby a number of times, but two of these portraits are very different. In 1961–62 his features are chiselled, they show a soft cubist inflection; then in 1972 in a painting that is eight feet tall, his bright intelligence is almost scary. His face is more structural. Were you simply recording what time does as it advances, or are we looking at what is almost a different person? I suppose the question here is, “Who does portraiture serve: the subject or the painter?”

You have ideas about painting that are sort of acquired. There wasn’t too much thought involved.

You were friends with a cluster of amazing poets, from at least two generations of the group that John Bernard Myers named in 1961 as the New York School of Poets. Was there one among them who, as a painter, you felt closest to in what they were doing with language?

I liked Frank O’Hara ultimately the most, and it was because Frank wasn’t ashamed of anything he had done, no matter what it was, and I think he extended himself further. I got the idea from Frank to extend myself. I’m not going to stop and make a plan, make a solution to art, I just want to go on into the thing where there is no support. I’ve done it ever since. Frank was my hero.

The poets had an openness and casual quality to their written language. Did you feel that you wanted to get the same feeling in your painting?

It’s this word I’ve used before, it was “generic.” Poetry: it’s not what they say but how they say it that counts. I recently did this book with Joe Brainard, who turns out to be a great writer of the 10-year period, he’s one of the great writers in prose. A big part of it is the words he uses. He uses generic language, and it all seems fresh and new, and it’s like no one has ever done it.

You met Frank O’Hara in 1954 at the opening of your first exhibition at Roko Gallery and he became an early supporter of your work. In his poetry he was interested in what he called “minute particulars.” I have always thought that that idea in poetry is close to what you think of as “finish” in painting.

Frank had one period where he wrote poems like “To the Harbormaster,” which is like a Tennyson poem, a modern take on historic poems. John Ashbery read that poem at Frank’s funeral, and I thought it was like my master plan for life, that poem. It’s great. It’s so complicated. But then he went into “Lunch Poems,” which were just the here and the now. When I was reading them—it was Broadway, it was windy, it was hot—they are much more original in styling. As a group, they’re more important than the earlier ones, but the early ones are fantastic poems.

Alex Katz, The Cocktail Party, 1965, oil on linen, 198.12 × 243.84 centimetres. Photo: Tom VanEynde. © Alex Katz / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / CARCC, Ottawa 2024. Image: Richard Gray Gallery, New York / Chicago. 67586int.

Did you always read the poems that were going to be included in the books you were working on, and then took from that reading ways that you might respond in your painting and drawing to the poetry?

Yeah, a lot of times the poems came first.

You seem to have insisted on keeping the two art forms—image and text—distinct. You don’t want one to be the illustration of the other. You made that clear in your declaration that you “don’t want some poet messing with my images.”

Kenneth Koch was the first one, he thought he was going to work with me like he did with Larry Rivers—he draws something, and Larry erases it, and they go on and on. And I said (laughing), “I ain’t gonna have no poet messing with my artwork.” So I gave him the one with the empty balloons and I said, you fill them in. And he said, there is nothing I could write that was better than the empty balloons. And three years later, he did it. He wrote three stories for every one balloon. And destroyed the balloons completely. Kenneth was brilliant.

I read that you were reciting Edgar Allan Poe when you were four years old, so was poetry, through your mother, something you were aware of at a young age?

My mother started me off with poetry, and my father stopped it. He didn’t want an art house kid. But there was always that thing with poetry.

You started painting groups of people in the mid-’60s. Was it a natural progression to go from single portraits, or couples, to groups of people?

There hadn’t been anything done with groups of people, and it was like an open field, another place to feel insecure. You didn’t know what you’re doing. And it was terrific.

Did the world you were in—populated by poets and writers and choreographers and dancers—encourage you to stick with figuration?

I was going to do figuration or die. And the more hostile the public, the more aggressive I became.

Were the collages the first time you knew you were making art?

Yes, making the collages, I knew I was making art.

Alex Katz, Blue Umbrella 2, 1972, oil on canvas, 243.84 × 365.76 centimetres. Photo: Paul Takeuchi. © Alex Katz / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / CARCC, Ottawa 2024. Image: Richard Gray Gallery, New York / Chicago.

The paintings in “Autumn” are big and they display—or, rather, they are an embodiment of—how very few marks can get so much mood and presence. What made you want to do this series of paintings?

Most landscapes are like holes in the wall. They have to do with distance. I want a landscape to feel the way you feel when you’re in one. They wrap around. I need a certain amount of size to get that feeling.

In a conversation around “Gathering,” you tell ARTFORUM that you “load the brush and hope it works.” Given how much you know about painting and light, aren’t the odds of it working more hopeful now?

I have the same insecurity now as I did when I was a kid. I’m trying new things, I’m trying to do things better, and I’m very insecure about it. It has to do with when the paint is on the brush, you’re insecure. And when it hits the canvas, you have something to work with.

In comments you made in the catalogue for your exhibition at the Albertina, you said you must be highly critical of what you are doing in the ongoing “battle between ego and consciousness.” Are you still as highly critical as you were then?

I’m pushing myself out as much as I can.

I’m interested in the way you have continued to be a supporter of artists, through your Foundation and through curating exhibitions like “Downtown Painting” at Peter Freeman in 2019. You mixed so many generations of painters in that show.

I had a very hard time coming up. I’m glad I can help people when they’re in that same position. Because, what’s money for? That’s it. ❚

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