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Alex Katz: artist, loves the past and poetry

Artist Alex Katz says setting aside time each day to read is just part of “being civilized.’’Brian Snyder /REUTERS

The prolific, New York City artist Alex Katz makes time to spend an hour with a book each night. Reading, as he says, is part of "being civilized." "Alex Katz Prints" is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 29.

BOOKS: What have you read and liked recently?

KATZ: "Europe Between the Oceans" by Barry W. Cunliffe, a history of Europe that starts off with the hunter-gatherers and ends about 1000 A.D., and "The Origins of Political Order" by Francis Fukuyama, which covers a similar time period but is more philosophical. Both of them are very good.

BOOKS: Is that typical?


KATZ: My reading is erratic. I read a lot of history, a lot of poetry. I read "City of Corners" by John Godfrey recently. It's very downtown. For my money, there's no one writing better. I give away most of my books, but I won't give this away. I also read "A Place in the Sun" by Lewis Warsh, a kind of detective story. He's a poet, but I like his novels better. And I read "Clearview/LIE,'' a memoir by the poet Ted Greenwald, which was terrific.

BOOKS: Have you always been a voracious reader?

KATZ: Yeah, I read more than most people when I was young. We had The Book of Knowledge encyclopedias. I read them all. When I was 13 I swapped skates for a bushel of books, mostly Westerns, books by Zane Grey and stuff like that. I read a bad novel every morning and played baseball every afternoon. It was a great life.

BOOKS: Who are your favorite poets?

KATZ: I like James Schuyler, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. Frank O'Hara was my all-time favorite. I like Godfrey the best right now. He makes Ashbery look like Reader's Digest. My son Vincent is a very good poet, and he translated all the poetry of the Roman Sextus Propertius.


BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?

KATZ: When I was 17 or 18. I didn't get to the contemporaries until later. They taught only the moderns at Cooper Union. I liked the poetry of that time, but the newer stuff is much more electric.

BOOKS: Have your reading tastes changed much over time?

KATZ: I don't read novels much anymore. I had a teacher at Cooper Union who had strong opinions about all these novels. I thought he was a jerk and wanted to make sure so I read the whole bunch by the time I was 28. He was.

BOOKS: Did you like the books?

KATZ: I was crazy about Proust. I liked Hemingway's first one, "The Sun Also Rises." I read it three times. I liked Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Now I mostly read history books. I read "The Sun King" by Nancy Mitford, which is great. I read "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World" by Jack Weatherford, which was fascinating. Genghis Khan brought a lot of civilization to Europe. If he hadn't caught a cold and died he would have taken Europe like nothing. I've also read most of the good books on architecture.

BOOKS: What draws you to books on architecture?

KATZ: They're like things you didn't expect to happen. Like there's a guy named William MacDonald who wrote a book on Roman architecture. His premise is that it's as good as anything else built since and then he goes out to prove it. He wrote "The Pantheon."


BOOKS: Do you like biographies?

KATZ: I've read a lot. I liked Robert Caro's first volume on Lyndon Johnson, "The Path to Power," but I haven't read any others. I liked General Grant's autobiography. I read Truman's speeches. Truman is a fantastic figure, but provincial.

BOOKS: Do you read biographies about artists?

KATZ: Yeah, Jean Renoir's biography of his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. That's a terrific book. But most books about artists are sentimentalized.

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