Manners Entice: A Discussion Between Alex Katz and Francesco Clemente
by Francesco Clemente

C: I think that you are as interested in film as you are in poetry, but it is the moment, the fleeting moment that most attracts you.
K: The quick things passing.
C: For you, paintings capture the fleeting moment. My interest in film and music lies more in the idea of the sequence. For me, images are the static thing, that which doesn’t move.
K: Ultimately, images can imply motion.
C: Cultural generalizations are based on this idea of motion and immobility. In India everything moves all the time, yet the whole physiology there is based on a great attraction to stasis, to physical immobilization, in the larger sense of cyclical movement. Whereas here, you find a kind of mythology of rigidity, as an antidote to the lack of substance in our metaphysical views. But, Alex, why don’t you make movies?
K: I don’t know. They seem like too much trouble. I wanted to make one once. I saw an early Rudy Burckhardt movie, and it seemed like the kind of movie I wanted to make, so I didn’t have to make it anymore.
C: Well, it’s physical. To make a movie, you must be on a set with a bunch of people.
K: That’s very unattractive. Very often I look at movies just for the visuals, and I forget about the story. You think of how the story is going, and you’re really interested in how they do it in pictures. But when I started to read Pasolini and to look at his movies, it seemed to me that what he was doing in film should have been done in painting in Italy at that time. In general, European artists take political responsibility in their lives. American artists don’t. And that’s the thing about Pasolini. He was addressing sociopolitical problems. You also have been involved with that in your art. Americans are more detached or alienated.
C: The question really is, who are your audiences?
K: I make paintings, and part of the painting is for painters – that has to do with craft. It’s very subtle – and quite elitist. If you don’t know very much about painting, you’re not going to see what I’m doing. Painters are the audience I appreciate the most. Another part is the literary or historical meaning of the images: that is for another audience. Then you have images and surface: that is for yet another audience. So you make these parts for several different audiences. It’s interesting to me if the work has some real social or political importance because I never think about that. Though, if you are making art, part of it is for a general audience – I can’t conceive of art that is not intended for a wider audience. When you had your show in Buffalo, I thought it really gave something to a general audience. Even if they didn’t understand the mythology or the symbols, I thought it made contact. I think people were shocked.
C: I think that can happen, but I don’t think it should happen. I don’t think that one should look for that kind of confrontation. There are territories set. The edges of all the different social territories, like the edges of all the different audiences, are blurred. There are grey areas in between.
K: There are a whole lot of people who only read your paintings; there are also a lot who just look at your paintings; but they are different people – right?
C: Somehow I don’t believe you when you talk about this difference between the European artist who is engaged in social provocation and the American artist who is not.
K: I said less so.
C: You are not being sincere.
K: I’m not sincere! Do you realize what you’re saying?
C: Actually, the whole itinerary of provocation/integration was acted out tragically by the New York School. I see artists in America making choices, but they do not declare them as such. True, the choices don’t resonate in society because there is neither criticism nor debate, although, distinctly, choices are made. In Europe everything is food for debate, but the artists are not necessarily making the tough choices. Those who constitute the European intellectual audience have their ideas nicely lined-up, and they walk around paintings ignoring them, and if there isn’t a debate about the choices of the artist, then the intellectuals can be extremely radical without anybody paying a price.
K: In one sense the American approach is more open, but when you get near the top of the pyramid, it closes up a lot. There is not much that’s negotiable. It is much more open now than it was 15 years ago here. With the Abstract Expressionists there was not much that was negotiable outside Abstract Expressionism. In the ‘60s, if you think of things outside the big movements, there was very little that ever got to Europe – or that ever got anywhere outside the U.S. That was one of the weaknesses of that part of the century. You certainly aided the change by opening things up, making it possible for artists to move in and out of different areas, different styles. That was shocking, and now more people are doing it.
I guess that this type of stylistic negotiation started with the selling of the Impressionists, grouping a bunch of guys together. The same thing was done with the Fauves, the Futurists and the Cubists. The only way to sell and distribute art, finally, was to have these ridiculous three-year trends which are of no consequence whatsoever.
C: That has to do with something else. It happens everywhere.
K: In the last 10 years or so, subject matter has become much more important to everyone. A critique of our time has become the subject matter of art.
C: You are not interested in subject matter, are you?
K: Subject matter is only important to the artist.
C: It’s important to the artist … to be able to get started.
K: To start, you have to have some subject matter, or else you can’t get anything done. The right subject matter is what makes you go. The idea of a crucifix means more than the idea of a bottle of water, or a bottle of water means more than a crucifix. The idea of space means more than the idea of a radio. They’re all equal.
C: So what is important then?
K: That I like the images?
C: Was there an agreement between us not to talk about what matters? Up to now, we have discussed values. Perhaps it would have been better not to. We can go on talking about movements and American/European clichés. Somehow we still get things done. Maybe this is a useful limit: to never mention what makes things useful.
K: I remember once when I was asked to write about what I was doing in painting. I wrote something down and showed it to Edwin Derby and he said, ‘Oh, so that’s what you’re doing’. Then I went home and wrote something else. And so it went on for a week. I wrote about 15 different things about what I was doing. It all said the same thing to me.
C: That shows good manners.
K: Manners entice.
C: You speak about manners. I do too.
K: Manners and taste become very important. They are crucial: without them the work will never have any energy. It’s all manners and taste. My idea of good manners is to say something interesting; an intellectual’s idea of manners is to be interesting at all times. But even by saying something interesting at all times, you can never make someone see something differently. You have to confront people to make them see differently. You must tell them, ‘This is what things look like, regardless of what you think’. When you step out that far, you often have some problems.
C: There are some key words that you use when you talk: décor, style, sentimentality. I would like a precise idea of what they are for you.
K: Décor is the taste in paintings. I don’t think any painting in New York can get very far unless it has some decorative value. All the successful painters are good decorators. One of the weaknesses of New York painters is that they are more decorative than anything else. I always thought that my paintings would look elegant as decoration, but they couldn’t compete with some other paintings. They’re just a little too noisy for first-class decoration.
Style is the self-conscious way you put it all together. For me, if something has style, the artist has extended himself, and there is some real risk involved in doing that. If the work doesn’t have much style, I don’t think there’s much risk. It’s a matter of how well you can do it. Style has to do with a self-conscious extension. I try for it, and I admire artists who extend themselves rather than those who are more contained. What was the last word?
C: Sentimentality, which we haven’t discussed. When we look at my paintings, what amuses me most is that you never accept some things as paintings. What happens is that you walk into my studio and say, ‘This is the largest watercolour I have ever seen’. Then, the next day you call and say, ‘Oh, there are those paintings…’ So you have accepted them as paintings. This is a whole area that makes me curious: what are your limits? Where do you draw the line? On one hand, you choose a strategy that is simple, otherwise it wouldn’t work; on the other, you need an obstacle to give simplicity depth to this. I want to know what it is possible for you and what is not allowed; what makes painting serious or not serious?
K: In painting you have an idea which changes as you make it. Other people change your idea of what a painting is. I suppose that when I see a great big watercolour, somehow it becomes a painting, because for me, a painting has to do with having a good conception.
C: What is your genealogy? What tree does this idea belong to? The reason I ask is that with other people it doesn’t matter as much, but it seems that you belong to an ancient tree of some kind. I believe it is part of the work.
K: I don’t mind that I’m traditional.
C: Yes, but frankly, it makes me laugh that there is a whole generation of artists from the 70s who never touched anything with their hands, and they talk of Giotto and Piero della Francesca as their brothers. In your case, it’s a little more interesting. It makes me curious. After painting all those big pictures, the Abstract Expressionists went to Italy and found that the giant frescos that Piero della Francesca painted are tiny. I have to fold my New York-sized paintings to bring them back on the plane from India. That creates the limit. But, of course, you are more interested in extensions.
K: I am restricted by craft. At a certain point, I realized that there were lots of ways of making art other than by traditional methods of painting. I enjoy new painting. Generally, if I want to see masterpieces I go to a museum. But I like seeing ‘live’ painting.
C: So there is a tradition: comparing masterpieces to your own paintings. And seeing masterpieces is like buying memory.
K: It has to do with what you like and what you don’t like. It’s that simple. You like a painter, but you don’t like the way he did this. You don’t want to do that because you know someone else who did it. At the same time, you have absorbed it and taken part in it. If I had to make a career out of ideas, I don’t think that I could do anything very well. To me, ideas are subject matter and not that important.
C: Forms are important.
K: No, style is important. Style and appearance. You have to have some conceptual energy, otherwise it is really dull, but basically it is just the way it appears.
C: Yes, but as I grow older, I am afraid I am beginning to believe in forms: my theosophical ways are finally taking over. It’s not that I really think about forms but I believe in their existence.
K: I believe in technique. That’s probably the only concrete thing that you can say about a painting. You can measure the size of the painting, you can tell someone about the reputation of the artist but outside that, everything is vague. If a painter puts paint on canvas, you get involved in technique. That’s a definable thing: how good the guy’s technique is; what he is in relation to what he does.
C: I believe in forms, but I did not say that I would discuss forms.