The signature paintings of Alex Katz are instantly recognizable: often portraits, they feature block colours in vibrant hues, vast empty backgrounds and a light spirit. Some of his images are so well known that they now appear on beach towels. But few know the story of the artist himself, the friendly 87-year-old born in Brooklyn who still paints every day at his Manhattan studio, hasn’t taken a vacation “in fifteen or twenty years” and whose appetite for beauty is as great as ever.

A contemporary of Andy Warhol (something he candidly touches on in the interview that follows), it is easy to categorize Katz as belonging to Pop Art. And while he continues to draw on popular culture (“You see through the eyes of your culture”) as inspiration, Katz explains that there is a deeper aspect behind those intense canvases. “My idea was to use popular imagery as a different way of breaking up the canvas. I started that in late fifties and since then I’ve continued to try to make my paintings look new,” he says. “Almost all figurative art is old. I don’t want to make an old painting.”

Katz’s ever evolving ideas for painting can clearly be seen in a blockbuster new exhibition at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Pantin, Paris. Here, in ‘Alex Katz: 45 Years of Portraits’, one can see how Katz plays with perspective, moved from the canvas to aluminium and eventually into sculpture, all the while referencing classic techniques from the European painting tradition. Behind each work is an anecdote, some of which Katz shares with us here in conversation with Thaddaeus Ropac.

Alex Katz: 45 Years of Portraits
Until 12 July, 2014
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Pantin
69 Avenue du Général Leclerc, 93500 Pantin, France
+33 1 55 89 01 10

What is your definition of luxury?
Waking up at 7.30am and not starting work until 10am. I live my life in luxury. I have the luxury of being able to waste time by reading The New York Times, which is trash.

Women in Jackets, 1996

Thaddaeus Ropac:
Alex Katz is a painter. In the sixties you developed the idea of doing cut-outs. What made you change from the classical idea of painting canvases that hang on the wall to move into a different material with a three dimensional element?

Alex Katz:
I liked life size people and so I cut the people from the canvas of the painting. Then the question about what is life-size became a very interesting idea to me. I came to the conclusion that there is no life-size, it’s only arbitrary. When you look at these women you think they’re life-size. But if they had legs on them they’d be 14ft high.

In sculpture you have traditional places where they make a cut to make a bust and again it’s totally arbitrary. Why can’t you make a head with a higher cut or slice it off like in a cubist painting?

If you just take a photo cut out, the energy collapses. When you paint like this on aluminium it goes past the edge and that’s what makes these people seem alive.

I found that without the background I could really be intense about is inside. So the painting on these is much more intense than the painting on any of my canvases.

Laure and Alain, 1964/1991

Thaddaeus Ropac:
This is a very special and unusual painting. I might almost call it an experiment. The first part was painted in 1964 and the second part in 1991. What made you revisit a painting you did 30 years earlier?

Alex Katz:
This one was hanging in my bedroom. I kept looking at it and thinking that I paint better today. So I decided to do it again and it turns out I paint the same. Perhaps the hair is better but otherwise it’s the same.

I started making double images in the late fifties with double portraits of my wife, Aida. That was a long time before other people did it. It was exciting to do something new that no one had seen. I like it as one painting.

Private Domain, 1969

Thaddaeus Ropac:
This painting is one of quite a few works in the oeuvre of Alex Katz that deals with dance and dancers. Dance is something that is very important in your work. I know you worked with incredible choreographers. Can you tell us how your interest in dance and movement started?

Alex Katz:
I left the real world at the age of 14 or 15 and went into a funny high school that was a trade school where we did half a day of art. You learnt nothing at that school! The only thing I learnt to do well was drawing. Dance was also a very big thing at that school. I could dance with people from Queens and people from Harlem but I couldn’t dance with people from Brooklyn or anywhere else in the United States!

I was asked by a choreographer to do a set that he needed in two weeks. At the time I got interested in the idea of composition. In the 20th century there was no composition; there was construction like Picasso and de Kooning and there was arrangement like Monet. I’d started to overlap volumes in my paintings and it led to this. Also, I didn’t want Andy Warhol to rip me off again and thought there’s no way he’d follow me here!

Coleman Pond, 1975

Thaddaeus Ropac:
One step ahead of your cut-outs that hang on the wall is this type of freestanding cut-out. What amazes me about you as a painter is that you’re always looking for the next step in your painting, in this case by giving them more space and looking at the work from two sides. Are these works sculptures or are they still paintings?

Alex Katz:
They’re sculptures. Here, the aluminium completely disappears here because of the painting. It’s the idea of dematerialization. Sculpture should be light in motion. The whole idea of mass is uninteresting to me. I’ve recently done some new ones that are even more sculptural than this.

In modern art they had the idea of progress. I don’t believe in progress. I think progress has to do with communism and fascism which were all from the same time. My idea is to make art more like fashion. I wanted to do something more free.

Nabil’s Loft, 1976

Thaddaeus Ropac:
When you started to move away slightly from portraits and dance there are many works you did that describe New York life and casual party scenes in the late seventies and early eighties. Are they stories about New York and the urban environment or are they about friends?

Alex Katz:
This was the first composition in a series of paintings of people in lofts. I started them at my studio and then went to other people’s places or different environments to paint the scene there. Living in a loft was exotic at that time but now I see they’re selling lofts in Dublin!

In this painting you can see Nabil Nahas, a Lebanese artist who is very hot now. He looks like a movie star here. The beautiful guy on the left had also started to paint but unfortunately was a victim of AIDS at the time. The woman in the painting was a hot artist who just disappeared. Art is like fashion, every three years you get a new set of artists.

Pamela and Ursula, 1994

Thaddaeus Ropac:
This painting somehow stands out when you look at others in the show just because of the scale. In some of your paintings where two people overlap, you almost feel that it’s the same scene and that someone is in the foreground and someone else is in the background. But here it’s very different. What makes you decide on scale?

Alex Katz:
These are all actually paintings in front of paintings. They turned out to be great images and this one is particularly successful. The portrait is the foreground and the painting is in the background. I did them in my studio so the background painting is one of mine.

Night Study 2, 1976

Thaddaeus Ropac:
This is one of the most intimate paintings in the show. For more than fifty years Alex has painted Aida, his wife and companion. When I see these paintings and the other painting with your son and your daughter-in-law, I realised that family is a very important motif in your work. What do family portraits mean to you?

Alex Katz:
It started a million years ago when I was a teenager. There was a man who lived on the same block as us who was a very talented artist. He told me to paint my own backyard. But our backyard was a mess and I couldn’t see it as a picture at all. But it became an idea that I have carried with me my whole life, that I can see something original. You think you see through your eyes but you don’t. You see through your culture.

When I met Aida I was in a cafeteria at four in the morning. We were talking and this guy said, “I like to get the expressions in the eyes right.” I’d never heard a sentence like that and wanted to try. At that time my painting had become quite skilful as I’d been painting for six or seven years. So Aida became my model.