We know 87-year-old artist Alex Katz’s life is devoted to art, but it still comes as a pleasant surprise that he is actually in the act of painting when we arrive at the West Broadway studio he’s occupied since 1968. Wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a teal hoodie—all splattered in paint—he invites us in before continuing to add a few more strokes on a giant canvas, which he later explains is a portrait of Christy Turlington.
When we sit down to chat, Katz is charming and earnest when discussing his work. “I was offered to do this project, and I accepted it—which I thought was pretty bizarre!” he chuckles. Lucky for us, he not only accepted, but created an exclusive collection of home goods and gifts, limited edition prints available for purchase, and an impressive mural in the Madison Avenue store windows sure to be enjoyed by anyone walking past.
The mural occupies all four of the Madison windows, and at 8′ x 60′, is one of the largest works of Katz’s career. It features portraits of 18 women, including Yvonne Force Villareal, Doreen Remen, and Casey Fremont (all from Art Production Fund), Ada Katz (his longtime wife and muse), and Elizabeth McAvoy. This is the second partnership between Barneys New York and Art Production Fund, who collaborated in Summer 2013 to launch an exclusive collection with the Estate of Roy Lichtenstein.
Below, Katz explains how fashion continues to embrace the art world and why he likes to mix it up.
The Window: Tell us about the concept for the Madison windows.
Alex Katz: It was new for me—I never did store windows. The closest thing to windows I ever did was when [in 1977] I put these huge portraits on 42nd Street. And these windows can be considered public art just like that was. It’s large scale. For this, I created a mural that includes 18 fashionable ladies. I made rough drawings first then blew them up to seven and a half feet. Having done stage work before, I decided it would be cool to put the images on a scrim, and once we chose to backlight it, it worked!
The color scheme is unexpected for you. Why black and white when you usually use such bold colors?
I’ve been doing it a lot lately, and it’s the opposite of what tends to please people—you know, lots of colors. Also, black and white is always a fitting color scheme for New York. I think the products turned out really well like that. I’d like to give some to my wife.
How does your art translate onto items like bags and bedding, as opposed to being created on canvases to be admired on a wall?
I wouldn’t want to do it for a living, but it’s really fun to do. I like to mix it up. I do stage sets. It’s all a way of extending your vision. The overall message is just fun. Honestly, it’s what I could get away with! I have a publisher who goes with anything I do now, because if I do the right things, he can make money! I asked him if we could do prints of the windows—in the same size—which stressed him to no end. So, we made 18 additional prints, which was so much fun.
What is the relationship like between the art world and the commerce world?
Art is supposed to be eternal and fashion is always moving, but I’ve learned that art moves just like fashion. In the art world, there’s a no-no regarding fashion. People think fine art is above fashion, and I think that’s ridiculous! Now, there’s a big merging of the two. When I had my show in Paris recently, I had about 15 magazines review me. It was a fine art show yet most of my reviews came from the fashion world. The fashion world is moving into the art world, and not the other way around.
Did your audience change with this collaboration?
Working this project has allowed me to extend my vision to the public, whether it’s to a passerby on Madison Avenue or on a dinner table. Art has several audiences, and a good painter can paint for all of them. There’re the fellow painters (my usual audience), the dealers, the collectors, the writers and poets, and the man on the street. I like to make paintings that the guys I play ball with in Queens can understand. Collaborating with Barneys, it’s the general public I am speaking to, but since Barneys is an upscale place, the commercial products are all elegant and elevated.
Are the clothes important in the portraits you paint?
Sure! Portraits capture appearance and tie a picture to the time or moment. The clothes are definitely important in portraits. Back in the day, fashion houses used to give me clothes.
What’s your own relationship with the fashion world like
I’ve been involved with fashion for quite some time. I’ve designed sets and costumes for Paul Taylor Dance Company. I also grew up in an atmosphere of fashion, and my parents were involved with clothes, so it was very natural. I like window-shopping, but I hate trying on clothes. I never dress up anymore, but I used to. When I came to New York, the artists dressed very conventionally as artists—you know with paint on their clothes, very bohemian. I never dressed that way. I would wear a shirt and tie and tweed jacket. I didn’t want to paint like them, and I didn’t want to look like them either!
Art Production Fund x Alex Katz x Barneys New York will be available at the Madison Avenue pop-up, as well as Beverly Hills, Chicago and on Barneys.com.