Artsy: When did you begin making your more overtly figurative work? The work that, to many people, felt very unique.
AK: My work seemed to coalesce in the late ’50s, around ’58. I was really cooking then—I enlarged my sizes and I focused on specific features with very abstract backgrounds. With the portraits, and the big faces in particular, a lot of the imagery came from film, TV, and billboards. And the sizes were big. By the early ’60s, I’d gotten up to about 6-by-6 feet, and by the late ’60s I was up to 10-by-20 feet. I made a trip to Europe when I was around 35 and, as I was leaving the States,
told me, “If you think our pictures are big, wait until you see theirs.” He was right—I was really bowled over by them. Rubens! The amount of energy they could get off of a surface was unreal.
At the time, I had a lot of antagonism towards the macho AE [Abstract Expressionist] guys—the guys who were like our fathers, in a way [laughs]. I wanted to really knock them off their feet, particularly because my paintings were more lyrical, with delicate subject matter. Flowers, girls, and landscapes. It wasn’t macho stuff, or he-man painting. I’m not macho, and I’m not a he-man. My father was a he-man, my brother was a he-man, and these guys seemed very affected. They were trying to be he-men and they had no idea what he-men were [laughs].
Artsy: What attracted you to your delicate subject matter—your human subjects, in particular?
AK: It’s pretty much intuitive. A million years ago, a friend and I rode our bikes 20 miles from home. We painted watercolors and brought them back to my father. My father said to the other guy, who wanted to be a commercial artist, “You’re going to be great.” (And he was, he ended up being very successful.) To me he said, “You have to be a fine artist” [laughs]. Then he killed it by saying, “Why don’t you paint your own backyard?” That really stayed with me all my life. If you want to do something new, don’t do what other people do.