When you’re sitting inside Alex Katz’s studio, a spacious, light-filled fifth-floor loft on West Broadway, it’s easy to forget the bustling streets below.
What you might expect to read next is that the 84-year-old painter, whose bald pate and sinewy build lend him a monk-like aspect, who has lived and worked in this space since 1968, when Soho was an industrial slum—before the artists arrived, before the galleries moved in, and before retail forced them all out—leads an isolated life, toiling away at his canvases, far above the fray, immune to any sense of competition.
“We compete for audiences, as artists,” Mr. Katz said, leaning toward The Observer across a coffee table, his eyebrows raised intently. “I’m competing with the Abstract Expressionist guys. I’ll knock ‘em off the wall. If you put my work next to an aggressive A.E. painting, I’ll eat most of ‘em up.” He paused. “And I want to compete with the kids. I’m there with the kids.”
He was wearing a red polo shirt open at the collar and neat white pants. He’s lean and rangy, and was evenly tanned. His voice retains traces of a gruff accent from his youth in Queens.
Mr. Katz, whose work figures in major museum collections the world over, and who has a couple of important museum shows coming up next spring—at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and London’s Tate—recently made an unexpected move. After parting ways last fall with his gallery of 10 years, the Pace Gallery, a 51-year-old establishment that represents blue chip artists like Chuck Close and Robert Ryman, as well as the estates of Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, he signed on with the 17-year-old Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, a gallery known for a stable of talked-about talents most of whom are half Mr. Katz’s age. (Before showing with Pace, he’d been with the equally blue-chip Marlborough for 30 years.) The Observer spoke with him last Thursday, two days before his debut exhibition at Gavin Brown.
The association with Mr. Brown, Mr. Katz said, didn’t come out of nowhere. He’d been following the gallery since it opened on Broome Street in 1994. (Mr. Brown subsequently moved to Chelsea, then to his present location in the West Village.) He participated in a group show there, at the request of Elizabeth Peyton, a painter Mr. Brown still works with. He watched the dealer develop the careers of artists he admired, like the Trinidad-based painter Peter Doig. “It’s a hot place,” he said. Last year, he was in Mr. Brown’s gallery, speaking with the dealer about his own work.
“He talked about the immediacy of light,” said Mr. Katz, who counts among his influences Matisse and Bonnard. “Subject matter is what people usually talk about. I realized he knows what I’m doing. Not many people know what I’m doing.”
Now on view at Mr. Brown’s gallery is a group of large portrait paintings depicting only the subjects’ faces, as well as several paintings of flowers. Mr. Katz’s style has gotten more abstract recently, but he is still working consistently in a mode he began developing five decades ago: flat, simplified depictions of landscapes, or of friends and acquaintances. The current crop includes paintings of the wife of his son, the poet Vincent Katz; his London dealer Timothy Taylor’s wife; and his own wife, Ada, who has sat for countless portraits since they married in 1958. The sole man in the group is a dapper young Brazilian fellow, Ricardo Kugelmas, painter Francesco Clemente’s studio manager.
Although figurative painting, like abstraction, waxes and wanes in popularity—every few years, art magazines declare a renaissance—it’s not as though Mr. Katz’s work has ever really gone out of style. In 1989, the respected art journal Parkett devoted an entire issue to his influence on younger artists. Liam Gillick, Peter Halley, David Salle and Richard Prince have all written about, or interviewed him.
Even with his own star set pretty firmly in art’s firmament, he is concerned about remaining relevant. “You saw that film about the cave paintings from 20,000 years ago?” he said, referring to Werner Herzog’s recent documentary. “There’s no progress in art. There’s merely change. And that’s like fashion. I want to make something new, and it has to do with change. It’s more like a dress designer than a 19th-century idea of an artist. I’m restless.”
He took The Observer on a tour of his studio. Two assistants were busy photographing paintings. He showed us some drawings that derived from dress patterns in ads for Macy’s—he’s always been interested in clothing, his portrait of Vogue editor Anna Wintour was just acquired by London’s National Portrait Gallery—and small study paintings on masonite that he makes outdoors, then transforms into larger, highly abstracted landscapes on canvas.
What about Milton Avery? The Observer asked, naming the titanic American modernist who died in 1965. “My light is fast, his is slow,” he replied. “My drawing is much more complicated. We were both influenced by Matisse. I always thought he was a very good American painter. But I was better than him at 22.”
Mr. Katz’s ambition is disarming, because it doesn’t come off as swagger. He makes these statements casually, with an easy grin, as though he’s telling you whom he played tennis with this morning.
Last fall, after he left Pace, Mr. Brown wasn’t the only one to make a studio visit. Larry Gagosian, the world’s foremost dealer, also came by with, as Mr. Katz remembers it, a director of his uptown headquarters, who was keen to bring him on board. The 66-year-old dealer runs 11 galleries around the world and is known for aggressively raising artists’ prices; his seductions are notoriously difficult to resist. Earlier this year he reportedly paid a visit to the 83-year-old sculptor John Chamberlain’s studio on Shelter Island and walked away having bought the studio’s entire contents; shortly afterward he brought Mr. Chamberlain, who had been with Pace, into his own stable of artists.
Mr. Katz thought about going with Mr. Gagosian, but ultimately turned him down. He told him, referring to Gavin Brown, “You have more taste, he has more style.”
What did Mr. Gagosian say to that?
The artist smiled. “He said, ‘You’re right. He does have a hot crowd. He knows what’s going on.’”
By the time Gavin Brown, a swarthy, bearded 47-year-old Brit, arrived an hour late for a Friday morning interview at his Greenwich Street gallery—police security prior to the 9/11 anniversary had traffic on the West Side Highway backed up all the way to 125th Street, where he lives—The Observer had installed herself behind a wooden table in the gallery’s cozy second-floor kitchen-cum-viewing-room. Winded, Mr. Brown, seemingly by way of apology, collapsed into a chair and momentarily buried his face in his hands. It was the day before Mr. Katz’s opening and the city was ajitter with terrorist alerts. His shirt was halfway unbuttoned, a disheveled look The Observer initially took to be some sort of fashion statement, until he glanced down and hastily buttoned up. As a display of unpolished vulnerability, it was charming.
Mr. Brown’s gallery—its official name, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, aptly captures its air of freewheeling experimentation—has become synonymous with today’s avant-garde. In 2007, he allowed Urs Fischer to dig a giant hole in the floor. (Mr. Katz admires Mr. Fischer’s work. “He’s a screamer,” he told The Observer, adding, “I’m competing with that guy.”) Last year, when Mr. Brown doubled his gallery’s square footage, this newspaper all but crowned him the next Jeffrey Deitch (the longtime downtown impresario who became director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.) Buzz comes at a cost—the big guns have taken notice of Mr. Brown’s artists; Mr. Gagosian will soon do a show with Mr. Fischer in Los Angeles.
But Mr. Brown’s Enterprise is more than a place for youthful avant-garde hijinks. It’s also becoming one for the return of forgotten midcareer talents. This summer, he turned over his gallery to Peter Nadin, who hadn’t shown in New York for 20 years; Mr. Nadin filled it with sculptures made of 6,000 pounds of honey and 57 hemlock trees.
Growing up in Britain, Mr. Brown said, he had a different perspective on Mr. Katz, who is widely considered to be the quintessential American painter. “He’s a homegrown artist here,” he said. “Oftentimes when things are that close you can’t see them. He always seemed quite exotic to me, from a distance.”
Last year, after one of his first openings in his newly expanded gallery, Mr. Brown’s director told him that Mr. Katz had told her, “I could do a show there. I like the space.” Around the same time, Mr. Brown heard that Mr. Katz had left Pace. He swiftly requested a studio visit, and Mr. Katz invited him to come around and make his case.
He didn’t recall saying anything specifically about Mr. Katz’s use of light. “I’ve always felt that his work is about the lived, present moment,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always been concerned with in my own life, and in my gallery—to try and stay present. I felt that rather than worry about his legacy, he should continue to stay in the present moment.
“He repeated that to me,” he said of Mr. Katz’s comment about taste and style, with regard to Mr. Gagosian. “I still don’t quite know what it means. You could interchange those words.”
Mr. Katz may be well established in art’s pantheon, but his prices don’t necessarily reflect that position. That is where Mr. Gagosian might have come in. Forty-nine-year-old figurative painter John Currin went to Gagosian in 2003, and it wasn’t long before his prices jumped from around $500,000 into the millions. Mr. Currin’s current auction record is $5.5 million; Mr. Katz’s is $690,600.
But catapulting the artist’s prices into the stratosphere is unlikely to be Mr. Brown’s role.
“If I have a role here,” Mr. Brown said, “it’s to reveal things in the work that perhaps people don’t see anymore, or perhaps take for granted. This body of work in particular has that kind of urgency to it.”
The opening on Saturday night was a convergence of worlds. There were grey eminences and young Turks; art people and fashion people. One woman wore a dress in the same tart green hue as the leaves in one of the wildflower paintings. There were established painters—Chuck Close, who studied at Yale when Mr. Katz taught there, and David Salle. There were Gavin Brown’s artists, like Rirkrit Tiravanija.
There was the sculptor Rachel Feinstein, wife of John Currin; New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni; up-and-coming curator, gallery owner and Interview magazine online editor Alex Gartenfeld.
Ricardo Kugelmas described posing for Mr. Katz: first, the artist spends about an hour and a half making a small painting, then he makes a drawing, and from those two things the final painting is made.
Art historian Irving Sandler, who has written extensively about Mr. Katz’s work over the years, was in a powwow with his wife, NYU art history professor Lucy Sandler and Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong.
“Look at figurative art today,” Mr. Sandler told The Observer. “Ask pretty much any figurative artist and they’ll owe quite a bit to Alex. And some of the abstract ones too. I can’t think of a more influential artist in figurative art today.” He paused. “Can you?”
Standing nearby was Mark Greenwold, a figurative painter himself and a longtime friend of Mr. Katz, whom he referred to as Katz, as though he were a character in a novel. “I’m a huge fan,” he said. “For those of us who work with the figure, it’s always been mystifying how brilliantly and economically Katz makes these things over the years. He’s kept this interest not only in painting, but in the world. Well, he only paints beautiful people.”
The Observer glanced around. Where was Mr. Katz? He was standing near one of the doors, wearing a suit jacket, looking content, scribbling his signature on an announcement card for a fan.
“Katz,” Mr. Greenwold went on. “He’s eternally youthful. It’s like that moment with Manet and Baudelaire—he’s interested in the modern, and in being this sort of dandy. It’s the idea that painting needn’t be this existential, hideous, Kafkaesque struggle to say something, but can rather be a kind of beautiful celebration.”
He looked at the art on the walls. “These are the paintings of a very young artist, in some odd way.”