Image: Emma McMillan and Alex Katz on their Decade-Long Dialogue
ALEX KATZ, "DANCERS 11," 2019. PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND ARS.
Featured in Cultured

Emma McMillan and Alex Katz on their Decade-Long Dialogue

October 20, 2021

Emma McMillan spent 2013 as broke as she’d ever been, so when fellow artist Nicole Wittenberg suggested she could make some quick cash posing for the painter Alex Katz she jumped. The friendship that followed is still one of the most generative outlets McMillan enjoys. Katz too. Their almost decade-long dialogue is made up of nearly as many paintings as it is bitch sessions. The two share a love of history, especially music, dance, film, and art. Here the two share a snippet of their ongoing repartee with a focus on their mutual love of theater.

EMMA MCMILLAN: Is there anything you want to talk about? We can just talk about painting. I was thinking about the dancers that you were painting for the show at Tramps.

Alex Katz: I’ve been involved with dancing since the late 50s, with Paul Taylor. When you see a dancer on the stage they’re about one inch high, and what you experience in my paintings is life-size. I did a series of dancers with the torsos about four or five years ago, so this time I thought I’d do the faces and try to apply to them the emotion and experience you have when you seethe dancers on stage.

EM: All in a face, all in a portrait size.

AK: And the relationship between two people. I called up Paul Taylor, and Michael Novak, who’s another dancer, came too. I photographed them and they kept making wonderful gestures, one after the other. It’s kind of funny because when they choreograph, they take three or four hours to do a couple seconds of dance, and here they were knocking out one gesture after another. Then the hard part is deciding what I’m going to use. So I lay them on the floor and start cutting them, using tape, sorting what you need or what you don’t need. Then I painted them and decided to use green instead of the shadows.

EM: The green for the stage light, so the deepest shadows become green.

AK: Yeah, the shadows become green. I tried to use black and a purple, and it seemed kind of heavy and traditional. When I used the green, it looked right. They had a lot of stage makeup, and I did a painting 40 years ago with Paul Taylor in bright colors. There’s this woman Emma King who used to dance with the City Center—she’s Lois Dodd’s granddaughter, and she still sits like a dancer—so I told her to put on stage makeup and come over. So she did and I did these ones, four feet tall, that’s when I did the green. Then I used the Paul Taylor dancers and took the green with me, and they said oh the way King had her makeup is old-fashioned, we don’t do that anymore, we just put a little dot by the eye. I paid no attention. I put the red where she put it then I put it on the guy’s lipstick.

Emma McMillan spent 2013 as broke as she’d ever been, so when fellow artist Nicole Wittenberg suggested she could make some quick cash posing for the painter Alex Katz she jumped. The friendship that followed is still one of the most generative outlets McMillan enjoys. Katz too. Their almost decade-long dialogue is made up of nearly as many paintings as it is bitch sessions. The two share a love of history, especially music, dance, film, and art. They also share a packed fall calendar, with the 94-year-old Katz gearing up for a Gladstone Gallery exhibition and McMillan unveiling a multi-year commission for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation’s new curatorial endeavor inspired by the biblical story of Susanna. Here the two share a snippet of their ongoing repartee with a focus on their mutual love of theater.

EMMA MCMILLAN: Is there anything you want to talk about? We can just talk about painting. I was thinking about the dancers that you were painting for the show at Tramps.

Alex Katz: I’ve been involved with dancing since the late 50s, with Paul Taylor. When you see a dancer on the stage they’re about one inch high, and what you experience in my paintings is life-size. I did a series of dancers with the torsos about four or five years ago, so this time I thought I’d do the faces and try to apply to them the emotion and experience you have when you seethe dancers on stage.

EM: All in a face, all in a portrait size.

AK: And the relationship between two people. I called up Paul Taylor, and Michael Novak, who’s another dancer, came too. I photographed them and they kept making wonderful gestures, one after the other. It’s kind of funny because when they choreograph, they take three or four hours to do a couple seconds of dance, and here they were knocking out one gesture after another. Then the hard part is deciding what I’m going to use. So I lay them on the floor and start cutting them, using tape, sorting what you need or what you don’t need. Then I painted them and decided to use green instead of the shadows.

EM: The green for the stage light, so the deepest shadows become green.

AK: Yeah, the shadows become green. I tried to use black and a purple, and it seemed kind of heavy and traditional. When I used the green, it looked right. They had a lot of stage makeup, and I did a painting 40 years ago with Paul Taylor in bright colors. There’s this woman Emma King who used to dance with the City Center—she’s Lois Dodd’s granddaughter, and she still sits like a dancer—so I told her to put on stage makeup and come over. So she did and I did these ones, four feet tall, that’s when I did the green. Then I used the Paul Taylor dancers and took the green with me, and they said oh the way King had her makeup is old-fashioned, we don’t do that anymore, we just put a little dot by the eye. I paid no attention. I put the red where she put it then I put it on the guy’s lipstick.

Emma McMillan spent 2013 as broke as she’d ever been, so when fellow artist Nicole Wittenberg suggested she could make some quick cash posing for the painter Alex Katz she jumped. The friendship that followed is still one of the most generative outlets McMillan enjoys. Katz too. Their almost decade-long dialogue is made up of nearly as many paintings as it is bitch sessions. The two share a love of history, especially music, dance, film, and art. They also share a packed fall calendar, with the 94-year-old Katz gearing up for a Gladstone Gallery exhibition and McMillan unveiling a multi-year commission for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation’s new curatorial endeavor inspired by the biblical story of Susanna. Here the two share a snippet of their ongoing repartee with a focus on their mutual love of theater.

EMMA MCMILLAN: Is there anything you want to talk about? We can just talk about painting. I was thinking about the dancers that you were painting for the show at Tramps.

Alex Katz: I’ve been involved with dancing since the late 50s, with Paul Taylor. When you see a dancer on the stage they’re about one inch high, and what you experience in my paintings is life-size. I did a series of dancers with the torsos about four or five years ago, so this time I thought I’d do the faces and try to apply to them the emotion and experience you have when you seethe dancers on stage.

EM: All in a face, all in a portrait size.

AK: And the relationship between two people. I called up Paul Taylor, and Michael Novak, who’s another dancer, came too. I photographed them and they kept making wonderful gestures, one after the other. It’s kind of funny because when they choreograph, they take three or four hours to do a couple seconds of dance, and here they were knocking out one gesture after another. Then the hard part is deciding what I’m going to use. So I lay them on the floor and start cutting them, using tape, sorting what you need or what you don’t need. Then I painted them and decided to use green instead of the shadows.

EM: The green for the stage light, so the deepest shadows become green.

AK: Yeah, the shadows become green. I tried to use black and a purple, and it seemed kind of heavy and traditional. When I used the green, it looked right. They had a lot of stage makeup, and I did a painting 40 years ago with Paul Taylor in bright colors. There’s this woman Emma King who used to dance with the City Center—she’s Lois Dodd’s granddaughter, and she still sits like a dancer—so I told her to put on stage makeup and come over. So she did and I did these ones, four feet tall, that’s when I did the green. Then I used the Paul Taylor dancers and took the green with me, and they said oh the way King had her makeup is old-fashioned, we don’t do that anymore, we just put a little dot by the eye. I paid no attention. I put the red where she put it then I put it on the guy’s lipstick.

A PORTRAIT OF ALEX KATZ BY EMMA MCMILLAN COMMISSIONED BY CULTURED. MCMILLAN HAS A SIDE PRACTICE OF PORTRAIT COMMISSIONS.

A PORTRAIT OF ALEX KATZ BY EMMA MCMILLAN COMMISSIONED BY CULTURED. MCMILLAN HAS A SIDE PRACTICE OF PORTRAIT COMMISSIONS.

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