Adam Harrison Levy | Essays

Artist’s Cookbook: Alex Katz

Photo by David Needleman

Editor's Note: This is the second in a six-part series from Adam Harrison Levy about designers, artists and cooking. To see all the installments, click here.

When it comes to food, Alex Katz keeps it simple. His first job was as a frame carver. He ate the same lunch every day: “a quarter pound of Munster cheese on a white roll and an apple.” He relates this story in a deadpan voice, waits for a reaction, and then lets out a short contained laugh, as he can’t quite believe his own experience.

Food is utilitarian for Katz. In a 1977 interview he admits that his mother was a good cook but that “you didn’t ask for food in my house, and you didn’t comment on it. You ate it or you didn’t.” He enjoyed some classic Jewish deli food, such as corned beef on rye and liverwurst with mustard on rye, but to him, “American cheese on white is the ultimate. To me as a kid it represented the straight world.” Food, in other words, was the gateway to the prevailing culture.

As a young artist he embraced the larger world in other ways as well. He was attracted to a range of art practices that were cool and detached ― bebop, the choreography of Paul Taylor, the poetry of John Ashbery and the music of Stan Getz, “all that stuff is impersonal ― with fantastic technique.”

Simplicity and style are the hallmarks of his painting. “I like impersonal painting. I don’t like passionate painting.” He prefers Manet to Cezanne. He didn’t arrive at his detached style accidentally (nothing about Katz seems accidental); it arose from his break from the overwhelming dominance of the abstract expressionists in the 1950s. Katz’s early paintings walk the innovative line between abstraction and realism ― in fact, they integrate both. “The abstract expressionists were all about form and content. It was all a big drag. When you listen to bebop, to Stan Getz, its cool. But its lyric.”

Katz himself is trim, almost sinewy. There is more than a trace of a dancer’s athleticism and grace about him. His large paintings take an enormous amount of stamina and sheer physicality to make and Katz is not shy about describing the demands that they take or his level of pure proficiency. “I dare anyone to compete on a craft level,” he said in 1996, “painting a twenty foot painting, wet on wet for six hours. You have to know what you are doing. That’s a master craftsman. Real high craft. Spartans had swords.”

Anna Wintour, 2009 © Alex Katz.  "I like impersonal painting. I don't like passionate painting." Katz prefers Manet to Cezanne.

That sense of a spare, focused craft, achieved as a result of constant practice is reflected in his food. Lunch is invariably sardines on a roll. This lunch is clearly a descendent of a 1977 recipe where he would take a small loaf of Italian bread, slice it in half lengthwise and arrange the sardines on the bottom half. He would then spread four steamed broccoli florets over the fish and sprinkle both with olive oil and lemon juice before adding salt and pepper to taste. He claimed that this sandwich was his singular invention.

Today, Katz’s choice of recipe is oatmeal. He has eaten the exact same breakfast for the past twenty years. It chimes almost perfectly with his paintings ― impersonal, detached, not at all fussy. One has the sense that the daily, almost Zen-like repetition of his breakfast helps him keep his mind trained on his upcoming day’s work. Katz’s food is consistent but his work continues to evolve.

Alex Katz's Breakfast Recipe

Mix oatmeal (instant) to water by eye
One glass of orange Juice
One banana
One cup of Lipton tea.

A version of this article was originally published on Gourmet Live!

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Jobs | May 25