The American artist Alex Katz, 84, is one of the world’s most influential living painters. His work can be found in public collections worldwide, including Tate Modern, London.
What was your earliest ambition?
I liked a lot of things but I always liked art.
Public school or state school? University or straight into work?
I got into Cooper Union in New York. They offered me a scholarship to Yale or Skowhegan School in Maine. I chose Skowhegan, I tried painting outdoors from nature – and bingo.
Who was your mentor?
My teachers were nice but there wasn’t really a mentor. I was working with Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso …
How physically fit are you?
I do 300 push-ups and 400 sit-ups every morning, I run, I go to the gym and I swim.
Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?
Ambition creates drive. You want to be a famous painter? That was my ambition and I worked flat out.
Have you ever taken an IQ test?
Yes. They never told me what grade I got. It was fairly high.
How politically committed are you?
In the early part of my life I felt the government didn’t care what artists did and I didn’t care what the government did. Now I feel I’m very happy to have lived where I’ve lived my life.
Do you consider your carbon footprint?
If people don’t do something we’ll lose the planet.
Do you have more than one home?
I have a home in Maine and the family has a home in Pennsylvania. New York City is pretty hard to be in year round.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Wasting a couple of hours in the morning.
In what place are you happiest?
Maine is very beautiful but I’m more comfortable in the New York loft.
What ambitions do you still have?
A big retrospective at MoMA, New York, before I die.
What drives you on?
You have an idea, you work on it and you work on it, you say “does the world need another painting?” and the answer is no – but you want to see what it looks like.
What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?
When I was about 30, I’d played a lot of baseball but I was always mediocre. I’d never thought of myself as a pitcher. Then one day no one could hit me. The others got up a petition to ask me to stop pitching; I was making them look bad in front of their girlfriends. I’ve never been prouder.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
Not being taken seriously in New York City. There are New York museums who have never even invited me to have a show.
If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would he think?
He would be amazed. I thought I’d be lucky if I got a teaching job in the Art Students League.
If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?
You paint to paint and the rest isn’t that important.
Do you believe in assisted suicide?
I think people should be allowed to make the choice.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?
10. What hasn’t been fulfilled is very minor. I’ve got a great family and had the good luck to paint all these years.
“Floating Beauties: Alex Katz and the Japanese Print” is on show at the Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1, until November 26.