When Alex Katz paints one of his large, signature paintings, it is an act of the utmost concentration, a performance in which he draws on years of experience as well as on preliminary sketches, painted studies, finished drawings, and a large charcoal cartoon, transferring the bare bones of the image to his canvas. Then he is set to paint, and he usually finishes his paintings in one day. In this case, he painted the six-by-fourteen foot January III in five hours, as his son, Vincent Katz, and daughter-in-law, Vivien Bittencourt, videotaped him.
This painting furnishes an ideal example of Katz's technique because we get to witness, in separate panels of a triptych framework, spontaneous passages of tree branches and the controlled modeling of a large face of his wife, Ada, the subject of many of Katz's paintings.
We get to see the artist's famous portrait style, as well as the landscape style for which Katz has recently been acclaimed. The videomakers decided against the use of dialogue; the painter is accompanied only by the music of composer and theater artist Meredith Monk. This video captures the essence of Katz, that quality Robert Storr of the Museum of Modern Art defines as the unquantifiable “cool”, in a dazzling and moving display of commitment to the experience of painting.
Al Maysles (director of Gimme Shelter) says: “This video stands out in such great contrast to what's wrong with most contemporary film and television, where the motion on the screen and the camera movements are like a salt shaker shaking salt on to a plate. In Alex Katz Five Hours, there's meat and potatoes; with the others, there's nothing on the plate.”