On the spring day when Williams arrived to sit for his portrait by Alex Katz, gray light was streaming through the skylights of the painter’s top-floor loft in SoHo, New York, where he’s worked and lived since 1968. Katz appraised the singer as he sat under a lamp next to the well-worn easel. A master of figurative painting, the Queens-raised artist turned to landscapes and portraiture at a time when Abstract Expression ruled the day; he has stayed the course, helping to put the pop in Pop art via his highly stylized pictures that often call to mind commercial and billboard art. “It was all instinctual,” he told Williams of his beginnings. “I wanted a painting to look brand-new and terrific. And most realistic paintings don’t look new.” As Katz captured Williams in oil paint,
he chatted him up. “It relaxes them,” he confided to me later. “That way, you don’t get a mirror face or a dead face.” Katz had seen Williams on television but didn’t know much about his music. Faces, however, are his stock-in-trade. Katz often rides the subway because “you get so much information from a face”; his subjects have run the gamut from poets and dancers to Kate Moss. To his eye, Williams was “a good-looking guy” in his green Vivienne Westwood hat, T-shirt, and knotted ropes of pearls. “Very sharp in his styling,” Katz noted. “The pearls are really important—they’re hot.” The two talked about how their worlds overlap. “People think
of painting as lasting forever,” Katz said. “But it’s like fashion or music: Every three years, there’s another style and another audience.”
When Williams mentioned that his father restored cars when he was a kid, Katz sized him up. “I bet you didn’t have the patience, did you?” “I hated it,” Williams admitted, and they both laughed. As soon as Katz finished the painting, he decided he wanted to make a giant one from the one he’d just done. He would make a “cartoon,” as he called it, that he would refine when Williams returned for a short second sitting, then expand that composition on another canvas he’d paint in a six-hour session. There’s no doubt he has the stamina
for it: Every day, Katz, 86, does
300 push-ups and 200 sit-ups, and runs three miles; in the summer, he also
swims a mile and bikes six miles daily. Lately, he’s been sprinting in the street. “Well,” said Katz, whose landscape works currently fill an entire room of London’s Tate Modern, “if you keep up your body, it just keeps going.”
Photographed by Mark-Woods.com.