A Conversation With Alex Katz

For the opening of the Paul J. Schupf Wing, in 1996, Alex Katz answered questions about the building and about his relationship with Colby and the state of Maine. Here is a transcript of that interview.

Alex KatzWhat made you decide to make such a substantial gift to Colby College?
Alex Katz: There was a project under way regarding a donation [from] Paul Schupf, so I decided to offer a gift of paintings. I wanted to see my paintings in the perfect situation. Colby provided the place.

What is the history of your relationship with Colby?
AK: My relationship with Colby goes back to Willard Cummings, who gave a lot of early American paintings and sculpture to Colby. He was a friend of [Museum Director] Hugh Gourley. Bill was a generous man and his generosity still continues at the Colby Museum with me, Hugh and the incredible early American paintings and sculpture he gave them.

As you know, Bill was one of the founders of the Skowhegan Art School, and I met him when I went there on scholarship from Cooper Union in 1949 and again in 1950. Through him I got to know Hugh and the Museum. Then, ten years ago, Colby did a show of my work, all from Paul Schupf’s collection, about 100 pieces, roughly 50 of which were paintings.

Was the building of the wing integral to the gift?
AK: Building the wing was a condition of the gift, otherwise there wouldn’t have been enough room to house the collection. These works represent what I’ve been doing during 50 years of painting-this is a sizable body of work.

What is the inherent connection between the works in this gift?
AK: I conceived the donation as the kind that holds a lot of exhibitions within it. Therefore it is not a retrospective, which is only a single exhibition. Here we have the potential for many exhibitions of my work: cut-out shows, painting shows, drawing shows, print shows. I also gave them all the writings, reviews and books on the works, which will provide a real opportunity for scholarship. It will be a research center. This will be the most complete source [of materials about my work].

In addition, I included memorabilia that would fill out the person I am-dance reviews of my work with Paul Taylor, photographs of costumes and sets, a movie on Paul Taylor by Burckhardt, and other documents. It will be an archive to which I will continue to contribute material.

Which works will be installed in the inaugural exhibition? Which works do you feel are central to this group? Did you design the galleries with any particular works in mind?
AK: The works selected for the first exhibition are 63 pieces, 17 of which are large paintings. One gallery will contain prints, and the other room will have small oil paintings and drawings. The two larger galleries will house the large paintings. The vestibule connecting the Jetté Galleries with the Paul Schupf Galleries will have one painting and two cut-outs.

John Cheim is working on the catalogue for the exhibition, which, except for one 30-foot work from Paul Schupf’s collection, Pas de Deux, is entirely from the gift.

The number of works on view at any time will vary. For me, the large paintings are central to my work. They are where the major energy is-so, yes, the space and exhibition galleries were designed first and foremost to accommodate the large paintings.

The late Max Gordon was originally to be the architect for the building. He completed conceptual drawings. Is the spirit of these drawings contained in the space now?
AK: Max made the drawings before he died. We worked together with Hugh Gourley and Colby’s president, William Cotter, to choose the site where the structure could fit. Then Max made actual blueprints, not working drawings, that were pretty accurate. After he died, Scott Teas of TFH Architects in Portland, Maine, was brought in by Colby to complete the job.

So, you began working with Scott Teas and together you expanded on Max’s concept. How did you do this? What changes were made?
AK: It was basically the distribution of the interior spaces, the cubic areas, that I worked out with Max-the size of the building and the spaces. The six existing skylights were Scott Teas’ idea. Rather than spotlighting my works, we wanted to achieve an evenly distributed light, which in the daytime is diffused through the skylight surface itself and at night by bouncing artificial light off the light wells. Teas also designed the facade outside, the windows and doors, entrances and the basic design of the vestibule, and he changed the ceiling, putting in exposed steel bar joists. In keeping with the overall design on campus, the building is brick, but the brick patterns on the facade delineate larger panels of brick in a gesture towards the scale of my paintings.

I think architects run amuck in building museums. They have little understanding of or interest in contemporary painting or contained spaces. The building of museums should be a collaboration. If architects were forced to collaborate with artists when they design museums, they’d be more successful. Some time ago when the Whitney was first considering an expansion the architect was presenting his plans to the Whitney and the Museum had him make a presentation to a group of artists. I told him the portals he designed were terrific for accommodating traffic, but there were no walls for contemporary paintings. Every wall had a door in the middle.

As for the Colby Museum, Teas did a terrific job. He produced a physical space with a rough elegance and simple materials-glass, steel, cement and wood. Everything is itself and the spaces are perfect for my paintings. At one point he was going to take the exterior wall and bring it into the vestibule, but President Cotter said no and we didn’t do it. That’s what I mean by collaboration. Everybody had input. I liked that.

You’ve really given a legacy to Maine. What hopes do you have for the future of this collection?
AK: I feel art is for all people and should be accessible to all people. If art is a mere decoration then it can just stay in a house. An artist really cheats himself if he doesn’t make his work accessible. In that vein, Colby promises to be very generous about lending the works, unlike many museums that either refuse or charge a fee.


Banner Image: Alex Katz, Pas De Deux, 1983, Oil on canvas, 132 in. x 360 in., Gift of Paul J. Schupf, LL.D. '06, in honor of Hugh J. Gourley III, The Paul J. Schupf Wing, 1999.029