Starting Out

By Katz, Alex | New Criterion, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Starting Out


Katz, Alex, New Criterion


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 color 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 194-6, 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 figured 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 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.

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