“Alex is painting.”

That’s how Alex Katz’s studio manager greeted me when I arrived at his New York studio on a recent Friday morning. She spoke in a whisper, the way someone might tell a visitor that a baby is sleeping. From the other room, I could hear the whoosh of Katz’s paintbrush dragging across the canvas’s surface. A few moments later, he turned away from the mustachioed figure taking shape in front of him, walked towards me and smiled, as if he were leaving a cinema and stepping back into the daylight.

Katz, who turns 97 in July, has never had trouble staying focused. He made his name painting portraits of New York literati during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, when figuration was distinctly unfashionable. In the seven decades since, he has continued to tune out art-world noise and remain relentlessly committed to his distinctive aesthetic.

This month, coinciding with the Venice Biennale, Katz will present 26 never-before-seen paintings — including three 20-by-10-foot pieces, among the largest he’s ever made — at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Titled Claire, Grass and Water, the show engages with three of Katz’s favourite subjects. There are light-flecked close-ups of turbulent ocean waters, monumental paintings of tall green and yellow grass, and dramatically cropped images of outfits by the second world war-era fashion designer Claire McCardell.

In a painting, multiple white brushstrokes against a dark background echo the waves of the sea
‘Ocean 8’ (2022) by Alex Katz © Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery. Photo: Charles Duprat

For much of his career, Katz has been considered less consequential than peers such as Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly. (Katz’s auction record of £3.4mn is less than a tenth of their top prices.) The New Yorker once described his work as “socialite realism”; others dismissed it for being too impersonal or cold. But Katz likely wouldn’t consider those insults. He says he wanted to paint McCardell’s ready-to-wear designs precisely because they are “egalitarian and generic . . . two values I like a lot”. His champions say that Katz is the master of a deceptively simple skill: to translate the fleeting present moment on to canvas.

Over the past decade, the art world has caught up with Katz. Last year, the Guggenheim in New York staged an ambitious retrospective of his work, which New York Times critic Roberta Smith said captured his creative momentum in a way that “should give everyone, especially artists, hope”.

In a painting, a woman wearing a chequered V neck top and a matching skirt stares into the distance
‘Claire McCardell 13’ (2022) by Alex Katz © Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery. Photo: Charles Duprat

Perhaps even more inspiring is Katz’s voracious appetite for making and showing new work in his tenth decade. His studio — a former factory in SoHo converted into live-work space in the late Sixties — is packed with paintings in various states of completion. In 2023, he had four gallery shows, each featuring a different series made over the past two years. This summer, he will have his first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art: he is taking over the atrium with colossal paintings of the four seasons. (Examples depicting spring and winter were in progress when I visited the studio.)

Scale is important to Katz. To create the grass paintings in the Venice show, he started outside in Maine, where he has had a summer house since 1954, working on boards the size of printer paper. He graduated to larger and larger surfaces until he achieved his desired effect. “I wanted to wrap that field around you,” Katz says. While he felt his grass paintings from 2018 and 2021 were “too much like paintings, not enough like grass”, he thinks he finally got it right this time. In one work, each blade is a single, yard-long stroke. Katz twisted the brush as he dragged it upward so that every line ends in a single, spiky point. “It’s a very flashy painting,” he says with pride.

In a painting, a middle-aged man wearing sunglasses and a grey shirt is portrayed against a dark, abstract background
‘Vincent’ (2008) by Alex Katz © Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery. Photo: Ulrich Ghezzi

Katz has always seen himself as part of the arc of art history. He began painting large in the 1960s in part because he saw it as an opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Matisse and Picasso. “Picasso was a great painter, but not over six feet,” he says. “You are with and against all painters, you know? You look at painters and you have to see where the cracks are and go there.”

He has never been shy about critiquing other artists. Manet? “The small paintings are kind of foppish.” The Rodins at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? “They look like soap sculptures.” What about the many young artists working in figuration — a style that, after decades on the sidelines, is now all the rage? “They’re pretty girls with terrible paintings,” he says.

I ask Katz if he is looking forward to visiting the Biennale. “I’m not interested in it, really,” he replies. “This is the end game. It’s just sleep and paint. When I was young, we’d take everything in — concerts and dance [performances]. Now, I’m not taking much in.”

A three-part painting shows a young woman in a red swimsuit on the left; a man in a stripy grey dressing gown in the middle; and the close-up of a woman in a turquoise body suit on the right
‘Claire McCardell 14’ (2022) by Alex Katz © Courtesy Thaddaeus Ropac gallery. Photo: Charles Duprat

That isn’t entirely true: Just a week before our interview, Katz was browsing galleries in downtown New York. He regularly buys paintings by young artists and donates them to museums through his foundation. He has gifted more than 700, especially to institutions in Maine. “I had a horrible time coming up,” Katz says. “The years from 25 to 35 are hard. So I thought, give someone encouragement. Take a painting and give it to a museum that’ll show it.”

Katz continues to go out into the world to find new subjects. The ocean series on view in Venice is based on photographs he took at Coney Island in the middle of winter in 2021. He zoomed in on the crest of a wave here, a reflection in the water there, until the compositions became almost abstract; some of the most turbulent scenes could easily be confused for a midnight blizzard.

He says he is unsure what people will make of them, but he won’t dwell on it. Katz still paints every day, climbing up and down a ladder to reach the far end of his largest canvases. Right now, he’s hard at work on a new series based on photographs he took of curving sycamore trees during a visit to Rome last year. “I’ve got four or five left to do,” he says. “It’s fun to see how good I can get.”

April 17-September 29, cini.it

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