Alex Katz in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

On a recent warm morning, my colleague Naeem Douglas and I visited Alex Katz in his downtown New York City studio, just days before he decamped to Maine for the summer. Katz was up on a rolling ladder painting when we first arrived, and he finished applying a dark brown coat of paint before climbing down to say hello. A stack of wooden frames awaiting canvas rested against the wall nearby. There was a palpable, almost feverish energy around the work that needed to be done. (Asked about his current routine, Katz replied that it was just “paint and sleep” with a laugh. He turns 97 this month.) On the occasion of a group of his monumental Seasons paintings going on view in MoMA’s atrium this summer, we spoke about making art for eight decades; his idea of eternity; a favorite line from his friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, which he took as inspiration; and what makes a painting a “dog” or a thing of indescribable elegance. He needs his paintings, Katz explained, to have “the feeling I have when I see things.” As Naeem and I emerged from the studio onto a busy sidewalk, we looked up at some trees in full bloom, trying to figure out which had been the model for the artist’s Winter painting at MoMA. I realized we were already trying to have a little more of Katz’s seasoned eye.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

It’s such a pleasure to finally get a chance to speak with you in person after writing about your art a lot. How long have you been working in this studio?

Since 1968.

And what do you like about it?

Well, it’s got a nice size and a nice light. As you see, the windows are on three sides, and we have windows even in the bathroom, so it gets pretty good light. In all the time I’ve been in New York, I’ve never been in the studio with bad light. The lighting suits me and the ceiling’s high enough.

Do you have a favorite time to be in the studio?

No. Actually, my paintings take all kinds of light. I’ve done a lot of night paintings, and twilight, and morning paintings. I think when people paint the same light all the time, it gets a little monotonous.

And do you have any favorite places to go in the city for inspiration or to get another view?

I like being downtown pretty much. I think a lot of the city is very beautiful; the big buildings and Central Park. But age has sort of caught up with me, I don’t go out much. It’s paint and sleep. Paint and sleep.

That’s a good routine. What do you do when you need a break from painting?

There aren’t any anymore! I used to jock a lot. I played basketball for Cooper Union, varsity.

Amazing. You’re not going and shooting hoops anymore?

No, no. And then in my 40s, I started running a lot. I did a lot of running and swimming, but that’s declined. And when I was young, there was all this poetry. My audience turned out to be poets and painters, the prime audience. And it was like a community. I went to a lot of poetry readings. And I read a lot of poetry too.

And how do you approach painting?

Well, I think you have to keep changing the way you paint. And my painting, I think now is more conceptual and more automatic. It’s a combination and it seems to be working pretty well. Once I start to put the paint on, I don’t really think about it. It just goes on. But it takes a while to figure out what colors to use.

Does it feel almost like a muscle memory at this point?

Yes. Muscle memory. At first, I was trying to paint realistic, and trying to determine what is realistic.

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz. Spring. 2023.

Alex Katz. Spring. 2023.

Yes, what does that term even mean?

Yeah. The word is an absolute, but the condition isn’t, it keeps changing. And then as I got older, I started to paint a sensation of what I was seeing, and so it’s more generalized. And that’s been successful. And then I got involved in doing several things at once. But one of them is the after-image idea. And it starts with Matisse’s red room, The Red Studio, which is like an afterimage of a green coming out to us.

We think of the complementary color.

Yes, when you come into a room and all of a sudden it’s red. And so, I started with these red and white paintings. And this summer in Maine I want to try it with an arbitrary color, with orange—you know, I packed a big tube of orange—and see how far I can go with it. Because the red and white afterimage paintings were very successful and absolutely totally different from what I started with. It’s funny, I did something 60 years ago painting birch trees in an orange background.

I love that return 60 years later. And do you find that the paintings you make in Maine are different than those you make in New York?

Not really, because a lot of the paintings get done in New York from sketches I make in Maine.

So they’re all connected in a way.

Yeah. The subject matter is different; we have skyscrapers and night paintings and in Maine, it’s a different kind of thing. But the thing in Maine is you get out of the rat-race art world.

In your approach to painting, you’ve talked about trying to emulate the immediate presence of jazz musicians.

The immediate present is my idea of eternity. It’s total consciousness. I don’t believe in regular eternity. It’s totally a state of consciousness. And that’s what I’m doing. And it makes the thing, what is realistic, be redefined. Every 20 years or so, people define what things look like. And the media has defined things for us. We see places with the media now, which wasn’t true 40 years ago.

This idea of the immediate present, is that the state that you are in when you’re painting?

More or less. More or less, I try to be in that state, yeah.

And is that a state you also would like someone to experience when they’re looking at your work?

Oh, to get this sense of something new. That’s pretty much what it is.

You’ve been painting over eight decades, since the 1950s. And yet your sense of time is linked to this idea of the immediate present. You’re best known for capturing what you call “quick things passing.” And you’ve talked about the 15-minute interval that’s so important for changing light.

Well, light changes. To get involved in painting a sunset, you have 15 minutes to make a sketch. And then what you do is make a sketch from what you remember of this moment. Then you go out and make another sketch, and then you paint a memory, what you think it looked like.

I love that. So there are so many different layers.

Yeah. You keep doing it to get what a real sunset is.

That’s such an amazing concept of time, of breaking down 15 minutes of real-time into an eternity.

What I’m trying to do is impossible.

But that’s a good thing to keep on trying to do.

I’m bound to fail, as they say.

Alex Katz’s paint tubes in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz’s paint tubes in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz showing his six-inch brushes in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz showing his six-inch brushes in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

When you get more skilled, you can use a bigger brush for smaller things.

Alex Katz

Because of your idea of time, I’m interested in how you might define or think about seasons.

Every three months, everything looks different. I’m trying to get at that. I don’t want the painting to be like a static image of reality, like some Roman art or Renaissance paintings. They’re terrific paintings, but they’re very static in time. The sensation in my big paintings; a lot of them are painted with a big brush in one stroke, the whole thing. And that has a certain energy, that gesture. That coincides with the seeing. It sort of locks into it. If you’re doing a thinner line, it wouldn’t have the feeling of energy or the feeling I have when I see things. So, that part of it is crucial.

Do you use different brush sizes for different seasons?

All of the paintings at the Modern, they all were made with a six-inch brush. When you get more skilled, you can use a bigger brush for smaller things.

Alex Katz. Winter Tree 1. 2023

Alex Katz. Winter Tree 1. 2023

I love that, using a bigger brush for smaller things. And are all the Season paintings actual places?

Well, let’s see. Autumn 5 [2022] developed from some trees outside the house in autumn.

In Maine?

No. In New York City. Every morning I walk around the block, and I’m walking past these trees with these colored leaves, and I say, “Gee, they’re terrific.” So, I took a camera and photographed it and developed it, and it ended up with this painting. Winter Tree 1 is a tree on this block. You can see the tree!

We’ll go find it.

I saw it in the winter, and I said, “That’s a real winter scene.” Spring and Summer 21 were developed from a bunch of sketches I did in the summertime in Maine. I did these sketches that were using bare canvas, and I hadn’t done that since 1950. All these whites are a regular, bare canvas.

Oh, wow. Okay.

So it’s real virtuoso stuff. And you can’t see it, it doesn’t look like that. If you go close and think about it, it’s a very hairy painting. They all are. And the green one, Summer 21, was the most difficult painting in a sense. The greens start off as yellow greens in May. And by the end of summer, they all turn dead. So, you’re painting, what is it, 16, 18 feet? With dead green. And I showed it to [dealer] Gavin Brown, and we both looked at it and we thought it was okay. And I said, “To make a painting that big that’s a dog isn’t very good.” [laughter] But 10 days later, I looked at it and I said, “No, you did something.”

Alex Katz. Summer 21. 2023

Alex Katz. Summer 21. 2023

Alex Katz. Autumn 5. 2022

Alex Katz. Autumn 5. 2022

It’s working. Can you talk a little bit about the size and scale of these works?

Well, the large painting is to take the landscape away from the holes in the wall. They’re great paintings, but they’re basically holes in the wall. And wrap that painting around you. If you’re in front of some of these big paintings, they’re around you, they’re environmental.

I love that idea of a painting wrapping around you.

Yeah. And I need a certain amount of size for that.

And you’ve also talked about painting spreading around you.

Yeah. You’re inside the painting.

Installation view of the exhibition Monet’s Water Lilies, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 13, 2009–April 12, 2010

Installation view of the exhibition Monet’s Water Lilies, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 13, 2009–April 12, 2010

I’m curious about other large paintings at MoMA that are immersive experiences, like Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.

I think some of the water lily paintings are better than others. The ones with the trees aren’t so hot.

You prefer the ones that have no horizon?

Yeah. No trees. The trees are painted like cotton candy, and it kills the pictures. But they have a feeling of not ending, which I always liked. And there are some earlier ones in Chicago that are totally fantastic. I do think Monet has painted more masterpieces than anyone. If he’s in front of a good motif, he’ll knock out seven, and if the motif isn’t so good, he’ll make six dogs.

[Laughter] What is your ideal thing that you would like someone to experience when they’re standing in front of one of those really large paintings?

Well, you never know what people think. And people see a different painting: an art student sees a painting; a 20-year-old painter, they’re seeing a different painting; the museum person sees it; a writer sees it. People are getting used to my paintings, in a way, so they’re a little more sympathetic to them, and take them seriously. So the experience, the public is varied. Right now, I have a very big public and a lot of young people seem to be interested in the work. And the whole thing is very strange and problematic. It’s connected to the energy of the country.

Oh, interesting.

Because it’s a stylistic thing, how does the painting relate to where people are? And the taste or the culture of a country is a huge drive. And as an artist, you try to hook onto it. You don’t control it, the dealer doesn’t, museums don’t, writers don’t. They think they do. They don’t. It’s how you relate to the current fashion, is what it is.

Does that energize you?

Well, I think you want to make something new. And so, you’re involved in the world of fashion just like that. I think the old modernist idea was that you can only work from the immediate past. You carry no baggage. It doesn’t adequately give you the opportunities to deal with experiences outside of that. My favorite artwork is the Nefertiti sculpture, by Thutmose [1345 B.C.E.].

And why is that your favorite?

I like the elegance of his styling, and I love the energy of his line. He draws on little slabs of limestone, and has other people make it, I think. And the energy of the line is fantastic. And then the modeling is like Raphael, you can’t believe a human being did it, And I mean, he is more important to me than the guy who invented abstraction.

Are there any other artists in the farther past of history?

Well, you go through different cultures. I like the Japanese printmaker [Kitagawa] Utamaro, because he dealt with the bohemian world very successfully. And he has a driving line, not a lot of substance but a great deal of style.

And how did you discover these artists?

Just by accident. You’re open to it, is what it is. My mother was a translator in World War II. She brought home a Nefertiti [reproduction] from a gift shop, and had it on her dresser. And I looked at it, I looked at it and it went bow pow! It has such an elegance, like 1930s movies. Nefertiti could fit into a 1930s movie.

Do you see cinema as an influence?

Well, I think movies affect your vision. And I think to deny they exist is ridiculous. They affect your vision, the way you think, and think about things. And photography too. Celluloid images are as much of an influence on art as Mondrian.

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Do you see your paintings differently over the years?

Well, I tend to like the paintings that are balanced rather than the paintings that are interesting. Because an interesting painting always has stuff wrong. For me when I paint...when you extend yourself you can’t expect to understand it. And it might take 10 years sometimes for me to understand the painting. Paintings I considered rough sometimes are the best paintings. So I’m not the best judge of my own work.

Well, I think it’s also a lesson in patience, that you can come back to a painting 10 years later and finally understand it.

Yes. Because when it was painted, half of it was unconscious.

You talked about some of the Season paintings being “a little hairy.” I love that term. Are they a little hairy because of how they were painted? Maybe you left some raw canvas, or there’s a risk?

Oh, yeah. There’s a real risk. These paintings don’t look that tricky, but that’s all wet paint and it’s a one-stroke thing, and it’s either right or it’s wrong. And you have to just do it. And you never get it. Very few of them come out the way I want them to. They go this way or that way and I have to figure out how to close it down. I generally say to painters, “Eat your heart out.”

Yes. Agreed. And because my colleague is here, who’s an amazing photographer, I have to ask this question. When you mentioned taking pictures of the tree outside your apartment, do you have a favorite camera that you use?

When I decided to take photos myself, it was rather late in life, and my daughter-in-law is a photographer, so I said, “Get me a camera that a 14-year-old can use.”

Did she get a Polaroid or...?

Just some camera, and I made things. And then for a whole summer, I took a lot of photos, and then the next summer, I wasn’t interested. I never used the camera again. Then I found this camera on the phone, and I find that’s fantastic because I take it, I give it to my assistant, he makes it into a photograph.


And why not? I’m having a great time with it.

There’s a real immediacy when you can just take a picture.

Yeah. You just pick up the camera and go, pow! A lot of the paintings, I’m waiting outside my house to be picked up, and I look up and say, “Hey, that looks pretty good.” So I get out my phone and shoot it in one minute and that’s it, very quick.

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

Alex Katz in his downtown studio, New York City, 2024. Photo: Naeem Douglas

In terms of the seasons in nature, do you have a favorite? Your paintings make me believe you like them all.

All seasons, everything. Everything outside. Picasso, Matisse didn’t go outdoors to paint. No. And so, it was open, it was all open field. And you want to try to get to live, like Frank O’Hara says, “Live as variously as possible.” And you want to paint as variously as possible, as much as you can.

That’s one of my favorite lines in poetry: “grace to be born and live as variously as possible.”

Well, it’s a great line. O’Hara is as good as anyone in history. Some painters imitate poetry with their paintings, and I’m on the other side. I want the poet to imitate me!

And is there any aspect of the environment or thinking about the changing world that you are trying to channel?

Well, part of the thing, if you’re dealing with the immediate present, you solve a lot of problems. Because if you start dealing with the future your painting is ridiculous. Making a great painting for all times is a terrible idea, really. But dealing with the immediate present, it’s scary, but it’s plausible.

Yes. It’s a way of giving that eternity some bounds.

You put some boundaries on it. Because the problem is we live in a disparate society and one part wants a lot of rules, and the other part wants freedom. And I think you have to mix it a little bit, you know?

Alex Katz: Seasons is on view at MoMA July 4–September 8, 2024.