A Tree Grows in SoHo

Article excerpt

Alex Katz likes to paint, and his ambition as an artist seems to consist largely in not letting anything get in the way of his actually doing so, steadily and surely. As Katz expresses it, being an artist is as much an act of will as it is the product of inspiration or abandon. "When I work I don't ask, 'Does the world really need another painting?'" Rather, his attitude is, "Well, let's see what happens . . ."

I arrived at Alex Katz's studio midmorning on the first Sunday of spring, the only snowy day in Manhattan all year. He greeted me warmly, excited to get to the business of making his painting. When I had approached Katz with the idea of chronicling the birth of one of his canvases, I had no idea that the entire process would unfold in the course of a single day. I had expected to track his painting's progress over the course of weeks, even months, but it became immediately apparent that he was going to paint it now. He'd had a particular color in mind, one he'd seen back when he was an art student - a deep, crepuscular blue he'd attempted to capture about fifty years ago in a painting of a woman looking out a window. That effort failed, but after so much time Katz felt he had discovered the right subject for another try: a tree along a Pennsylvania road which he had sketched from his car one day last winter. He would arrive at the appropriate color later, while mixing paints for the second of two twelve-by-nine-inch studies for the work. He figured out the painting's dimensions and the precise shape the tree would take by reworking the image from his drawing using charcoal on large sheets of butcher's paper. These now lay on the floor to the left of a roughly seven-by-five-foot canvas, which was propped against the wall on a couple of gallon paint cans and gessoed to a glossy sheen. The tree's outline had been traced on the canvas weeks ago, in strips of greenish-yellow paint about the width of masking tape. He had mixed green in with the lighter color he normally uses in prepping his canvas so that the outline wouldn't immediately disappear under the initial coats of the darker paint he would be using for this work. The two oil studies stood in the studio window just to the right of the canvas. Next to them, taped to the pane, was the original drawing, the diffuse morning light filtering through it.

Within minutes Katz was pouring his blue mixture from a jar onto a sheet of wax paper. He swirled a five-inch brush in the paint briefly, then dipped it in medium and began covering the canvas with broad strokes of watery blue. As he worked we talked. Painting got easier for him, he said, "when I got rid of the idea that you had to be a genius to make a painting. I was just going to paint. I didn't worry about it any more. There was this huge weight lifted off me," he recalled, rounding his arms above his head in a quick gesticulation as though throwing off the frustration he had felt before his revelation. "I could just do what I wanted."

As Katz applied the layer of turpentine and paint in broad, easy strokes, my presence, perhaps, reminded him of the time the poet James Schuyler had been to his studio in the early '60s and had written about him as he made a painting. "When I finished the painting he was done with his piece. It was incredible. In New York the '40s and '50s were about painting and jazz; the '60s and '70s were about poetry." Katz was proceeding with his painting so matter-of-factly that asking anything about it would have been begging the obvious. He remarked that for him a painting had to be "modern," but that this didn't mean it was an improvement on anything that had come before, just that each canvas should be unique, "of its time." Such pragmatism is something of a Katz trademark, his way of not getting caught up in any thinking about paintings that would hinder their getting done. "I have to figure out a way to be partly unconscious, not to know exactly what I'm doing, so it [the painting] can show me. …