Freedom in Speed: Alex Katz


Today is the 81st birthday of American painter Alex Katz, another requested artist. Since Katz's birthday is in the middle of the summer, his 1984 painting of two swimmers, "Milly and Sally," is the perfect accompaniment to his "Feel Art Again" feature.

1. Once upon a time, Alex Katz was "living illegally" in New York City. Describing himself as "socially fugitive," part of a group of people who "could lose our place at any time," Katz didn't bother voting at the time because he didn't care to vote. At age 21, Katz decided to vote, but his mother knew he was only voting to find out how the voting machine worked, so she asked him to sell his vote to her for two dollars. Katz replied, "Yes."

2. In interviews, Katz's sense of style is mentioned almost as much as his artwork. His dad, a Russian "playboy," instilled in him an appreciation for style at a young age. Katz later came to own seven zoot suits.

3. The theater is in Katz's blood (his mother was a Yiddish actress in Russia), so it's no surprise he's put his artistic skills to use on theatrical sets and costumes. He did the sets for Kenneth Koch's "George Washington Crossing the Delaware" as well as sets and costumes for the Paul Taylor dance group.

4. Katz carefully plans his artwork, but paints as fast as he possibly can, putting the paint down faster than he can think. For Katz, "to paint fast is to start with one side of your mind, let go and let the other side do it." It's in painting quickly that Katz finds freedom. Of course, all that fast painting can create quite a mess, so Katz wears gloves while he paints to keep his hands from getting dirty.

5. Supposedly, Katz destroyed a thousand paintings in his first ten years as a painter. Katz is quite prolific, though, so he has still been able to mount simultaneous exhibitions and to donate more than 400 works of art to the Colby College Museum of Art. (Their Katz collection has now grown to some 700 works.)

A larger version of "Milly and Sally" is available here. Fans of Alex Katz should check out his official site; the Katz collections at Richard Gray Gallery, Colby College, MoMa, and ARTINFO; the film Alex Katz: Five Hours; the videos of this studio visit and this interview; and the Smithsonian's interview with Katz. Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:Alex Katz: Subject to Reversal (Chicago: through August 2, 2008)Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities (Santa Fe, NM: through September 7, 2008)Picasso & His Collection, feat. Matisse, Renoir, Cézanne, Rousseau, & Picasso (Queensland, Australia: through Sept. 14, 2008)Monet to Picasso, feat. Monet, Picasso, Degas, van Gogh, Dali, Matisse, & Renoir (Salt Lake City: through September 21, 2008)Frida Kahlo (San Francisco: through Sept. 28, 2008) "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with suggestions of artists or details of current exhibitions.