Starting Out
by Alex Katz

This past summer I focused on buttercups in tall green grass. I have been attracted to this motif since the mid-1950s. There is no perfect solution. If I settle for the tone differences, the green becomes dead. If I settle for the correct light, I don’t have the tonal difference and the painting becomes conventional. This summer, I transposed the green from the actual colour green to a hot yellow-green. I had never done this before. It gave me the tone difference and the all-over light of the field. I was nervous about the yellow-green, but friends liked it. When this painting makes a public appearance, I don’t expect very many people to understand my problem, or my solution, or the difficulty in executing it. Actually, I suppose things haven’t changed for me that much in that area since the 1950s.
The challenge for me has been to paint a painting that could elicit the response I experienced looking at great paintings. To engage in primary structures of novelty art was, for me, a cop-out. Novelty inventions and gimmicks can have fashion and style but have much less voltage than a great painting. Painting does not need you. You have to need painting. Painting has to become you.
In high school, I was supposed to study advertising, but I came across beautiful antique drawings, and I spent most of my time drawing from antique casts. I became proficient, and realized I could learn something. The antique drawing took a whole week, looking two or three hours every day. The first day you measured distances and placed dots. The second day you connected the dots with lines. The third day you put large masses of light and dark. The fourth day you developed the tones inside the masses. The fifth day you added technique to make it look graceful.
Cooper Union was a romantic Bauhaus school that specialized in ‘Modern Art’. In 1946, people took a test to get in. I was so surprised when I received my acceptance letter that I jumped straight off the stoop. Considering I went to a trade school, I figures that I would catch up to the class and pass them in the middle of the second year. One third had been in the school before World War II, one third were graduates of Music and Art High School, which was essentially a prep school for art, and the remainder came from other backgrounds.
The top students in fine arts at Cooper Union received scholarships and access to the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney. Professor Ray Dowden asked whether I wanted to go to Yale summer school or to The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. William King, whom I knew, went to Skowhegan the previous summer, so I chose Skowhegan. At Skowhegan I tried plein air painting and found my subject matter and a reason to devote my life to painting. The sensation of painting from the back of my head was a high that I followed until the present.
After Skowhegan, two students got a loft on Bleecker Street in New York. It had a wood stove and was cold and rough. Jean Cohen got a sunny cold water flat on East Sixth Street. No contest, I married Jean. She got out of the Five Towns in Nassau and I moved to New York. I really liked it in St. Albans, Queens, but once my Queens friends got married, it was hopeless. We had little in common and the friends in New York were so interesting.
My intention was to make something fresh and post-abstract. I took paintings to dealers uptown wrapped and tied up with clothes line. That’s what people did before slides. One dealer, Harry Saltpeter, liked them well enough to put them in a closet. I took them back a year later. The dealer I liked best was Mrs. Kraushaar. She simply said these are too light for my gallery. I got to dislike people who said these are interesting, come back next year.
While in art school I had sold drawings to C. P. Penelis at Seventeen magazine, the leading place for modern illustrations, and I was going to be a scratchy line illustrator. In 1949 I figured it would take three years to be a successful illustrator and eight or nine to get established as a painter, and painting was the biggest thrill I ever had. I supported myself with odd jobs, house painting, etc., but settled for frame carving. I spent ten years carving frames two or three days a week. I lived without radiators for twelve years. I spent nothing on doctors, dentists, or clothes. In the 1950s rents were cheap, the cost of living was low. There were a lot of people in the same boat. There were a lot of parties and discussions. I was poor, but as long as I had clean white shirts, ties, movies, bars, and cigarettes, I never felt impoverished. Up to 1957, when I met Ada, it was, despite the intellectual liveliness, the most unstable, unhappy period of my life.
There were two types of art in New York, regional and provincial-modern. Cooper Union was a modern art school and one of the few that had a Bauhaus orientation. One educated there at that time had an advantage in graphics and fine art.
Right after I got out of Cooper, Michael Froelich, of Roko Gallery on Greenwich Avenue, asked me to exhibit a painting. In my last year at Cooper, I developed a style that was negotiable as provincial modern art, influenced by Robert Gwathmy and Morris Kantor, pick-up-sticks cubism with post-war colours. I got a nice mention in the New York Times and thought I would conquer the world as I had at Cooper Union.
Michael Froelich invited me a year later to show a painting. I had found Jackson Pollock, and I had found plein air painting. The painting I showed was a still life, delicately worked in subtle greys. It was halfway between Cézanne and Cubism. Beauford Delaney had a painting that wiped out the whole gallery. All I could do was laugh! Bill King said he was Grandma Moses on cocaine. I made up my mind that would never happen again, and it hasn’t.
In 1950 or 1951, Angelo Ippolito, Charles Cajori, Bill King, and Lois Dodd were talking about opening a cooperative gallery, the Tanager Gallery. There were very few places for young advanced painters to exhibit. It didn’t seem like a practical idea to me. In 1954, Michael Froelich asked me to have a one-man show at his gallery, the Roko Gallery, on Greenwich Avenue. Frank O’Hara reviewed it for Art News and said the work had an ‘oriental calm’. I thought the paintings were wild and open. This was the beginning of an education.
The first painting I showed at the Tanager Gallery was in 1952, of a woman on a porch, in profile. An older painter gave me some advice: ‘figuration is obsolete and colour is French’. I said to myself, ‘to you baby’. Actually, I had no idea whether what I was doing was going to find an audience, but my instincts told me there was no other way for me.
I was working for Vincent Maragliotti painting trompe l’oeil painting. He was great at painting the Loews Theaters with a broom and he really needed me. He ran down before my show opened and bought one of my best paintings for $75. My first public sale and I think the most money I had ever received. Subsequently, Jim Brody, a painter, bought a landscape and that became my record sale.
I came in on Saturday to meet my fans. The gallery was showing Robert Andrew Parker watercolours in folios in the front of the gallery. When people came in to look at my work, and asked if I were the artist, I was embarrassed because if I said I was, it would embarrass them. Some painters I didn’t know saw and liked it. But it was the first of five unsuccessful commercial shows that I had. I figured that if I sold the entire show, it wouldn’t give me enough money to paint for a season. As a business, it really seemed pointless.
My new paintings were open, free, and representational, or should I say, optical, which meant I had gone from a highly negotiable style to something only painters could get. To regional realists they were unfinished. To modern people they were old-fashioned.
Michael moved up to Madison Avenue and asked me to have another show. This time I was painting the background on a decorative mural by Alan Cox for Mrs. R. H. Dana. I didn’t get any paint on the floor and did a perfect job painting. She was too refined to tip me, so she ran over to the gallery and bought the best collage. I still miss it. It must have been $50. So I said so long Michael, a very sweet man.
I thought I might just as well show in a non-commercial gallery. The Tanager Gallery asked me to become a member. At the Tanager Gallery in 1956, the work would be shown with taste that was as good as one could get, and everyone in the live art world would see it. The Tanager Gallery was a cooperative gallery that became a centre. There was always someone interesting to talk with in the late afternoons. Angelo Ippolito found a printer with wooden type and invented a new style in gallery typography. He also specialized in hanging large numbers of paintings in the small space. The Christmas shows included every artist around and were presented with taste. When the Tanager started, none of the members had a gallery. By the time it closed, everyone had a gallery. At this time it was commercially profitable, but no longer necessary.
In 1959, at the Tanager Gallery, I had a show of figures on flat grounds. This was the most far out that I had extended myself. I had no idea what reaction it would get. There were those who liked it and others who didn’t – but I mean really didn’t. I was painting calm, pleasant paintings. My reaction to the hostility was, if you don’t like this, wait until the next show. I was surprised at the people who came and told me they liked the paintings. Bill DeKooning said they look like photos, but they are paintings, and don’t let them knock you away from it. Philip Guston, Jasper Johns, and Bob Rauschenberg were enthusiastic, and we started seeing each other.
In 1962, I had my first cutout show at the Tanager Gallery. Elaine DeKooning bought the Frank O’Hara piece for $300, the biggest sale to date.
The next painting show was at the Stable Gallery on Seventh Avenue in 1960, an elegant space. The show looked great. It established me as a serious painter and was another commercial flop. The artist Joe Fiore bought a small blueberry field and Elinor Ward bought a couple of small interiors. The show did have a spinoff. I was asked to show at the Whitney Museum in an under thirty-five exhibition. Emily Genauer gave me my first bad review. Elinor Ward said it was a pity she didn’t go on for a few more inches. Genauer said the paintings were thinly painted and poorly drawn. I wouldn’t argue with her. I wasn’t trying to make something drawn well or with developed paint. She liked Ben Shahn, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, etc. I was trying to make something alive and new. Ada in a White Bathing Suit, Paul Taylor in a Grey Background, 10AM and 4PM still look fresh.
It takes most painters at least eight or ten years to master the craft and become proficient, and perhaps another eight or ten years to become a master. One is able to become an artist in theoretical art right out of art school, or even in art school. A painter can become an artist after eight or ten years, but it doesn’t make sense to spend all that time if one is interested in becoming a success. Painting as a career doesn’t make sense. Painting is a self-indulgent passion that is not practical. To be a practical painter makes less sense than trying to be a painter. To paint to fit the size of a station wagon, or a living room, or the gallery doesn’t make any sense. The size and content of art should be determined by the artist’s needs. It is the most practical way to get at art.
The early 1960s produced more interesting art than any time before or since. Much of the early 1960s art was formed in the late 1950s. The diversity was amazing: Malcolm Morley, Andy Warhol, Jim Rosenquist, Al Held, Philip Pearlstein, Ronnie Bladen, Tony Smith, Dan Flavin, Eva Hesse, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselman, Red Grooms, Claes Oldenberg, Larry Rivers. All produced some of their best work during that period.
Art schools didn’t offer a training that would enable graduates to move into the contemporary world. Painters generally needed more time than other visual artists. Many of the more interesting artists usually don’t emerge until they are well into their thirties or forties. It’s much harder, despite the commercial and institutional support, for a painter to develop than when I started. We had a relatively large audience and a low cost of living.
In the late 1950s, colleges and universities expanded their art departments. This gave jobs to artists and greatly increased the art audience. It also made studying art respectable. The selling of art increased a great deal by the end of the 1950s, making it possible to think of having a degree and then a career in art. Galleries and institutions patronized the ‘avant garde’. The old-fashioned art schools didn’t have the money to hire instructors or the energy to compete. The art world has expanded. There are a lot of artists, but not a lot of painters. It used to be said that there were one hundred interesting painters. I suppose that would be true today, except that a good proportion of them don’t live in New York or the United States.
Abstract Expressionism quickly became an academy in the early 1950s and dominated the modern museums and galleries. It had the good and bad qualities of an academy. Systems requiring skill and taste developed painters, but stifled originality.
Clement Greenberg constructed the next academy – weaker, but an academy. Leo Castelli developed the academy of the ‘avant garde’, which was much stronger than either of the previous academies.
The people who liked my work were painters and poets with very little clout in the institutional art world. I felt I had an élite audience early on and things would get better.
In the fifties and sixties, just about all professional painters got reviewed every time they had a show. Amateurs did not get reviewed. Things started to unravel about fifteen years ago. The pursuit of novelty has led to democracy in action which does not have anything at all to do with committed painting. Painting is not democratic. Some painters have more energy and skill than others. Some painters have more interested audiences. Discrimination is greatly diminished.
The Museum of Modern Art used to be ahead of the artists; the Bonnard show in 1948, the Pollock-Balthus show, the Sixteen Americans show by Dorothy Miller. It was a place from which we all learned. It has become an essentially academic institution and shows a lot of institutional decoration. The recent all-white paintings rooms almost killed the Malevich painting. I remember paintings, movies, and meeting friends in the Museum cafeteria. Now I get depressed the minute I hit the ugly lobby. The new one will have to be an improvement.
However, the Museum of Modern Art has given us some wonderful shows last season and in the recent past. The Giacometti and Richter exhibitions were pertinent and engaging. The old master Mondrian exhibition is still vivid in my mind, and the Chuck Close and Robert Ryman shows were memorable.
P.S. 1, the New Museum, and the DIA Foundation provide an environment for young artists that did not exist in the early days of my art world. P.S. 1 brings live art from all over the world and gives local artists a chance to see their work in a public institution. The attitude of the openings make artists feel it is something to which they belong. It is a great help to maturing young artists and a great help to the city in maintaining itself as an art centre.
The Whitney Museum has provided a place for local artists. Its Annuals used to show what was going on across the board. Many people used to think it had a lot of dull art, but we all went, and I found new painters who were interesting and at times inspiring. I loved it on Eighth Street where it was part of the artist community. Times, however, have changed. The Biennials are more homogeneous, in better taste, and much easier to get through, if that’s what you want. The exhibitions are more professional. The exhibition of the permanent collection is a big help for the art student and the public. There was nothing like this earlier at the Whitney Museum. It is similar to what the Modern Museum and the Metropolitan provided.
The Metropolitan Museum used to be the best place to see abstract expressionist paintings, although the collection was small, no more than sixteen paintings. They were always on view and there were some real beauties – the Pollock, DeKooning, and Kline, for instance. It has become larger and less special. The proportion of dull paintings has greatly increased.
When an artist extends himself, his interest can no longer justify the painting, and it’s up to other to tell him what he did. I have learned a great deal from critics, starting with my friends, then from dealers, then from professional critics. Painting in one sense is a group effort. One’s various publics contribute to the painter’s consciousness. Professional criticism is an art form in itself. The discrepancy between where I was and where some critics were led me to read older criticism, and I found that there was much to learn from them. Sainte-Beuve, considered a ‘bad man’, actually is great on Racine and Corneille. His put-down of Balzac has become a model for journalists. You judge the reviewer as he judges you. An English journalist gave me a bad review on a show at the ICA in London. He seemed like a jerk, and I thought it was proper that I received a bad review from him, and that I was likely in good company. I asked Irving Sandler about him, and he said, ‘Rothko’s bad review was much longer than yours’. By and large I can say that people who like my work are a better crowd than the people who don’t.
I had a two-person show with Jean Cohen at a Cooper Union room on the West side in 1951. My paintings were ‘all-over’ tree paintings. Thomas Hess thought they should be more abstract. This came as a shock. I thought a reviewer would be involved with the painting of my work because that was my principal involvement.
This was the beginning of realizing that people see different paintings. The biggest problem with critics is that they have a morality from another time period with which they judge my paintings. The critics who responded to my work in the 1950s were James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Edwin Denby, Fairfield Porter. I didn’t exist for Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg. Clement Greenberg actually went out of his way to say how lousy I was. Perhaps that meant that I did exist, after all.