A series of gigantic, freshly painted canvases are propped up around the studio—each a frieze of enormous heads, some of men, others women. The pieces are reminiscent of what the artist was doing decades ago, most memorably in a series of Times Square murals he made in 1977. "I've been working to make this kind of ‘artificial realistic' painting," he says of the latest efforts. "I want to do something larger than a descriptive painting."
To make one of his large works, Katz paints a small oil sketch of a subject on a masonite board; the sitting might take an hour and a half. He then makes a small, detailed drawing in pencil or charcoal, with the subject returning, perhaps, for the artist to make corrections. Katz next blows up the drawing into a "cartoon," sometimes using an overhead projector, and transfers it to an enormous canvas via "pouncing"—a technique used by Renaissance artists, involving powdered pigment pushed through tiny perforations pricked into the cartoon to recreate the composition on the surface to be painted. Katz pre-mixes all his colors and gets his brushes ready. Then he dives in and paints the canvas—12 feet wide by 7 feet high or even larger—in an epic session of six or seven hours. "It's all done wet on wet," he explains. The paints blend and become luminous.
From far away or in reproduction, Katz's pictures look hyper-smooth, but up close you notice the brushstrokes and the small bits of accent color that attract the eye. More than painterly technique or the image depicted, though, his work is about the style. "I'd just as soon have the style be the content, style rather than form," he says. "The style is what puts all the disparate parts together."
Katz's wife, Ada, walks into his studio, offering coffee. A visitor might be forgiven for presuming to have met her before, so familiar is she as Katz's muse and model over the course of their 51-year marriage. The long hair that brushes her shoulders is gray now, but the expressive dark eyes in her serene face are the same as those that look out from under a hat in Red Coat (1982), from under an umbrella in The Blue Umbrella (1972) and from all six Adas wearing the same glamorous cocktail sheath in one of his most popular works, The Black Dress (1960). Her husband says she's an American version of Picasso's famous model and mistress Dora Maar. But, Katz is quick to add, "When I saw photos of Dora Maar, I said, ‘Picasso cheated on her neck and shoulders!' Ada has a much better neck and shoulders."
Katz's speech still bears traces of his childhood in Queens, New York. The son of an émigré who'd lost a factory he owned in Russia to the Soviet revolution, Katz "drifted into fine art," he says. He was studying commercial art at a local vocational high school when he began to draw from casts of antique sculpture and won admission to the Cooper Union School of Art in Manhattan. He met Ada, who had studied biology at New York University, at a gallery opening in 1957. "She's a great beauty," he says. "The gestures are perfect. She's like an actress in a sense. She's also a very sharp Italian girl from the Bronx—you can't beat that." (The couple have one son, Vincent Katz, 49, a poet and art critic.) Social life with Ada in the '50s and '60s revolved around poets—Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch—as much as painters. "They were dealing with everyday experiences, in a kind of sophisticated way," Katz recalls. (In Katz's 1967 portrait, Koch looks slightly uneasy behind a big pair of horn-rimmed glasses.)
Katz may be best known for his portraits, but he has also devoted himself to landscapes—works that are daring precisely because they lack people and "throw away the lifelines" of human interest, noted the critic David Cohen. "They work on Katz's own painterly terms or not at all." Many are evocations of Maine, where he has gone to paint every summer for the past 60 years, and where he has a house and studio on a small lake.
"It's a conceit in a way," Katz says. "It's like you can paint the same river twice differently. I often paint in the same place. It's like painting Ada over and over again—to see if you can get something else out of the same subject matter."
The Colby College Museum of Art, in Waterville, Maine, has devoted a 10,000-square-foot wing to Katz's artworks, the majority of which he donated. In addition, he has purchased numerous pieces for the museum by artists such as Jennifer Bartlett, Chuck Close, Francesco Clemente, Elizabeth Murray and, most recently, Marsden Hartley (a Maine native). Five years ago, he curated a show at Colby of such young art stars as Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig and Merlin James, who work in the same figurative territory staked out by Katz.
Katz's agelessness is hard won. He's a super-jock, who runs and does "tons of" push-ups and sit-ups when he's home in New York; in Maine, he works out, he says, up to four hours a day—running, bicycling and swimming. How far can he run? "As far as I like. I can outperform a lot of 21-year-olds physically," he says.
He says he also competes with artists half his age "for the audience," though with limited weaponry. "My subject matter is not particularly interesting," he says with a smile. "It's not hot subject matter—you know, no crucifixions, no violence, no sex." His tools are color and light, and his own stripped-down vision of the world. "I try to make painting that looks simple," he says, and cites seeing a Velázquez portrait of a Hapsburg infanta in a traveling exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum when he was in his mid-20s: "It was nothing—so simple! Something could be so simple and so much. Just a green background, a little girl—everything was perfect. There's no story line. It's immediate. He painted directly. He saw it, he painted it."