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Alex Katz on Old NFL Films, Matisse and Levi’s 501s

The New York Times Style Magazine:
Screenshot_2019-12-06 Alex Katz on Old NFL Films, Matisse and Levi's 501s
Portrait: Vivien Bittencourt; Art: Alex Katz "Katherine and Elizabeth," 2014 © Alex Katz/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Next month, the legendary New York artist Alex Katz will unveil “Katherine and Elizabeth, 2014,” a new public commission along the High Line in the Meatpacking District, directly across from the new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Katz was a logical choice to inaugurate what will be an ongoing series of large-scale public works jointly commissioned by the museum, High Line Art and the local developer TF Cornerstone. Often cited as a progenitor of Pop Art, Katz, now 87, has exerted influence on several generations of New York painters.

Born in Brooklyn to Russian Jewish immigrants, Katz attended Cooper Union and pioneered the SoHo artist scene while becoming a staple of the city’s intellectual community, both as a portraitist and a collaborator with writers, such as the poet John Ashbery. Katz’s iconically crisp and colorful portraits and landscapes, which take cues from advertising imagery, have helped to establish a distinctive sort of urbane, preppy East Coast glamour. Recently, Katz spoke with T while on his annual summer sabbatical in Maine. When asked about his influences, Katz wryly replied, “You can work with anything, and I like so many things. Egyptian sculpture and Bonnard and Edward Munch and Picasso and Pollock and billboards. Everything!” Here, he details a few more examples.

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Henri Matisse

"I think Matisse was the biggest influence. He just does everything so well, and he does so much at once. With once brushstroke, he can do five or six things, no sweat. I like the economy of it. If you asked me which painter in the last 500 years was the best, I would say him." Photograph by Ben Blackwell/SFMOMA; © 2014 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
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Vintage NFL Films

"In the '50s they were taking the 12-inch screen and exploding it into your room with all these crops. The energy and aggressiveness of the forms was something that would hold up to a good Abstract Expressionist painting. They tell me I'm a colorist, but I started with crops influenced by TV close-ups. And I think professional football photography revolutionized the TV set. It was really in your face." Associated Press
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Levi's 501s

"I like generic. I get a pair every year and that's about it. I've paid to have suits made, and it was incredibly expensive and then I never wear them. My wife and I were nominated for some best-dressed award in Europe and they asked, 'What's your favorite jacket?' I told them it was red nylon from L.L. Bean, and that was the last I heard of that!" Courtesy of Levi's
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"Clearview/LIE" by Ted Greenwald

"He's spent most of his life as a poet, and it's like Gertrude Stein in Queens. It's a lot of stream of consciousness, and the words are like someone who grew up in Forest Hills and then went to Florida." Courtesy of SPD Books and Cuneiform Press
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Kenneth Koch and Frank O'Hara

"They were using everyday things in a sophisticated manner. There was a publication called Semicolon or something like that, and in the early '50s I read a collaboration between Frank and Kenneth that went something like this: 'Woof woof woof woof woof woof woof woof woof woof woof.'" [Ed. note: the poem does include a few other words.] From left: Thomas Victor; John Jonas Gruen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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"A Place in the Sun" by Lewis Warsh

"He's a poet, too, a very good poet. This book is all about the words and it has a cardboard plot. People get thrown along by the plot and the plot gets thrown along by the people. In the middle of the book there's a section that's all about Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from his point of view, from her point of view and from a columnist's point of view." Courtesy of SPD Books
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Rainer Werner Fassbinder

"I really like 'Beware of a Holy Whore,' because he was using cheap film and shooting outdoors so their faces all went blank. It just looked great. 'The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant' is later. There is nothing in that movie! There's a bed and some blown-up wallpaper and very little goes on, very few cuts and shots. It's very simple but the filming was so together. He had that great cinematographer Michael Balhaus, who was totally out of sight." Everett Collection
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Penobscot Bay, Maine

"It's a rural swamp in Maine that's about three miles from the shore. It's very pretty, and we come here every year." Brian Patrick Feulner for The New York Times
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Jazz

"Right now I'm listening to an advanced Miles Davis record called 'Miles Smiles.' It's an aggressive modern thing, but I generally listen to stuff that really swings, like Charlie Parker and Lester Young. And I also listen to opera." Columbia Records