High style has always played an intrinsic role in Alex Katz’s artistic oeuvre. During his 45-plus year career, the painter has collaborated with several fashion magazines, including W and Harper’s Bazaar, and made muses out of top models like Kate Moss and Christy Turlington. In his continual quest to celebrate style as content, Katz, 81, will exhibit his latest take on the topic as part of a one-month show, “Fashion,” which will hang at Paris’ Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac through Feb. 14. Here, in a telephone interview, Katz talks about his process, models and J. Crew.
WWD: What inspired this series?
This story first appeared in the January 29, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Alex Katz: A recent show at [London’s] Victoria & Albert [museum] on fashion from the Fifties and Sixties. It was a fantastic show; it was so refreshing to see fashion photos from the Fifties that were so static, so posed.…Most of the advertisements today confuse attractiveness with sexiness. Pages and pages of girls with their mouths wide open, it’s not good for the brands and it’s not good p.r. The thing about fashion is it’s supposed to look new.
WWD: What drew you to fashion in the first place?
A.K.: I used to work a lot with Norma Kamali; her stuff was really commendable and cool. She had these amazing bathing suits.
WWD: What does fashion add to your work?
A.K.: Fashion has no narrative content, so it’s great to [create one]. It’s very immediate; it’s in the present tense. A lot of people think of art as heavy and, like a Rembrandt, forever. But I don’t see it like that. It’s here and now.
WWD: How would you describe your personal style?
A.K.: I mix a lot of my clothes, and most of my clothes go on forever. I have ties that are 50 years old. Every so often, I order something from the L.L. Bean catalogue. I love something generic. I also have a J. Crew sweater that I like.
WWD: So what are you wearing today?
A.K.: I’m in my underwear. I’m going to wear black Levi’s with white Bucks shoes and a dark sweater….My dad was a great dresser, but I didn’t realize till later on. Once [when I was a boy] there was a crowd of boys in the street and he asked me to pick out which one had the best style. I said, “The boy with the hat and suit,” and he said, “No, it’s the boy in the sweater and the pants.”
WWD: Describe the process behind your paintings.
A.K.: If the model is standing, I experiment a bit with a ballpoint drawing, but if they’re seated I paint directly on a small 12 x 16 canvas. From that I make a finished drawing, then I make a cartoon by using a [big sheet of] paper that I punch holes through and press pigment through. Then I mix my paints and paint. It’s the most effective way of getting to what I want to do.
WWD: Do you chat to your subjects as you paint them?
A.K.: Yes. If you don’t talk, they turn into still lifes.
WWD: Do you like working with models?
A.K.: Models are like an actress or a dancer; you don’t have to worry about them. I did a model, a blonde girl, a few years ago — that’s it, Kate Moss. She was very pleasant; she knows who she is and what she looks like. I also did a fashion campaign with Christy Turlington for her own line [Nuala]. She’s highly developed socially, very pleasant to talk to and great to look at. I did a set of illustrations which were actually big paintings. I have no idea where they are now.
WWD: Which work are you most proud of?
A.K.: I don’t know; I forget what I do. I know what people like the most: “The Black Dress” , “Blue Umbrella” . Oh, and “The Cocktail Party” .