Alex Katz’s appearance at a Portland Museum of Art event last week was notable for what it wasn’t: insightful or engaging. But it certainly had its share of tension, as Katz, who arrived late because of travel woes, seemed to have little interest in being there.

Repeatedly during his 30-minute talk on Wednesday about life and art, the artist checked his watch, and one time asked, “Have I gone on long enough?”

The answer clearly was yes.

Many in the sold-out audience of 250 walked out halfway through his talk at the Westin Harborview Hotel, and some who remained complained they couldn’t hear because the artist mumbled through his fingers. More than once, sound technicians interrupted to ask that he keep his hands away from his mouth because people were having a hard time hearing.

His mumbles became a running joke and provided a break in the tension of what otherwise was an awkward evening punctuated by moments of Katz’s dry humor.

Katz was in town as part of the Bernard Osher Lecture Series, presented by the Portland Museum of Art. Earlier this month, the museum hung two large-scale Katz paintings in its Great Hall, giving visitors an eye-opening start to their museum experience.

The Katz talk has been sold out for weeks, attesting to his popularity and the interest in his work.

Katz, who turns 87 this summer, splits his time between New York and Maine. He is best known for his large-scale figurative work, which often features the Maine landscape.

He was born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens and educated at The Cooper Union in New York City. But Maine is his artistic base. He came to Maine mid-century to study as the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and has maintained strong ties to the state since.

He has a summer home in Lincolnville, in midcoast Maine, and Colby College in Waterville has more than 700 of his works in its collection.

During his talk Wednesday, Katz said he appreciated Maine when he first came up in 1949 because it reminded him of Queens. “I came up and it was very gray,” he said to laughter. “I liked it gray. It was very relaxing.”

He also liked Maine because people do not fawn over him. Here, he’s just another artisan in a state full of creative people.

He told a story about a plumber who came to his house in Linconville to do work recently. Katz hired the same plumber 25 years ago, and the two hadn’t seen each other since.

“Hi, Alex. How are you doing? Still painting?” the plumber asked, perhaps unaware or unimpressed with Katz’s stature as one of America’s greatest living artists.

“I try to keep my hand in it,” Katz replied.

He encouraged young artists to work hard and ignore bad press. He said he’s had “a lifetime of bad reviews,” but they’ve never caused him to change his methods or alter his vision.

Go to work every day, he said, “and pay attention to things you don’t like that you are supposed to like.” He told artists to engage with their communities, because it is from a community of people that artists draw energy. It’s hard working in isolation, he said.

“If you are serious, the energy you put in is what you get out.”

He said he learned that lesson as a 22-year-old at Skowhegan, where he drew every moment he wasn’t talking, breathing or sleeping. The effort paid off. By the end of the 1950s, he had an established career and never looked back.

As for his style, Katz settled on flat-surface modern realist paintings with oversized figures because he liked painting with aggression. “I wanted to do something different, really scary.”

He cautioned people about putting too much emphasis on fame and said artists of all kinds — dancers, musicians, painters — will always exist as fugitives outside the loop of mainstream society. There is nothing wrong with that, he said.

Embrace it and celebrate it.

Kristen Levesque, director of public relations for the museum, said the PMA received a few complaints from people about the talk, but most people stayed to the end, and she noted that Katz received a warm ovation.

In a statement, museum director Mark Bessire called Katz “an iconoclast and maverick who tells it the way he sees it.”

More than anything, the talk was scheduled so the community could thank him for his contributions to Maine’s cultural scene, he said.

Wednesday’s “lecture was about spending time with arguably the most important figurative painter of the post-war,” he said. “It was also a way for our community to acknowledge and thank him for his love of Maine and his generosity of spirit to Maine art museums.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes