Appreciation: Peter Alexander

Appreciation

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1/10-13/12 (Large Red Diptych)
2012
Peter Alexander
Urethane
43″ x 81″
Photo: courtesy Brian Gross Fine Art

Anyone who has ever created anything will tell you that innovation is the pinnacle of problem solving. And so it was for Peter Alexander, a pioneer of California’s resurgent Light and Space movement who affixed his place in art history the same way he captured the essence of the sun-kissed beaches where he grew up-in resin.

Alexander’s “problem” presented itself in 2006. One of his translucent resin sculptures was showing in “Los Angeles 1955-1985: The Birth of an Artistic Capital” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The chronological survey of 350 works by 87 artists was the largest exhibition of postwar LA art ever assembled outside the United States. And it was troubled even before the artwork began to arrive at the museum. Several LA artists had publicly blasted the curator, Catherine Grenier, for excluding works by Charles Garabedian, Ed Kienholz and Peter Voulkos. Others were concerned about the wholeness of the city’s narrative. And the night before the exhibition opened, Alexander was alerted that his 8-foot-high and 5-inch-wide Untitled cast resin black bar had fallen from the gallery wall. Incidentally, another piece, Craig Kauffman’s iconic 1967 Untitled Wall Relief, made of vacuum-formed Plexiglas, fell and was found “fatally damaged” on the floor by an employee two days before the exhibition closed.

“[The Pompidou] offered to finance a complete reconstruction,” Alexander says of his piece, which was on loan from Franklin Parrasch Gallery in New York. The challenge of repairing the black bar-and the worldwide media attention the situation garnered-would become the catalyst for Alexander’s renewed interest in working in resin.

The road to Paris was something of a California dream come true for Alexander, now 71 years old and living in Santa Monica. Creative as a kid, he took to architecture and he even worked for a short time in Richard Neutra’s office. As a visual artist, he parlayed his geometrically precise architectural drawings and models into translucent polyester resin boxes that looked like cubes of still water. His love of the ocean factored into the feeling of his light-infused sculptures and, to a degree, surfing inspired his material of choice. “All of my work is about water,” says Alexander, who started surfing when he was 13 years old. “I grew up in Newport Beach, on the peninsula. Going in the ocean was a common occupation. Most of my work comes from those days.”

Alexander recalls glazing his surfboard and casting little boxes from the clear material at the bottom of the Dixie cup. By the time he had elevated the idea into serious sculpture, he had begun carefully finishing the surfaces to avoid any marks. “The boxes are places you go,” he says. “If there’s a scratch on the surface, it affects the way you see the piece, and you will feel differently about it. You have to have a perfectly clear way in.”

His “wedges”-tall, thin sculptures that are also inspired by the ocean-are among Alexander’s best-known works. He recalls flying into Los Angeles and noticing how the water appeared lighter as it neared the coastline. “I wanted to create objects that disappeared at the top the way the water does when it reaches the sand,” he says.

By the late 1960s, Alexander was among a small group of artists who had turned away from traditional painting and sculpture to explore the perception of atmospheric experiences. He and James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, De Wain Valentine, Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, and Helen Pashgian became associated with Light and Space and the Finish Fetish movement. Some artists, particularly Turrell and Irwin, created immersive, light-soaked environments, while others, including Alexander, created precisely shaped and sensuously finished objects that capture and reflect light. But the toxic polyester resin took its toll on Alexander’s health. “It’s just an awful, sticky material,” he says. “I’d pour it from one container to another to avoid touching it, because you can’t get it off. I stopped working with it altogether in 1972. I just didn’t want to be around it anymore.”

Alexander turned to painting, drawing and printmaking. His subjects were typically sunsets, palm trees and the twinkling lights of Los Angeles at night. “They’re the stupidest pictures you can ever do, and they were also beautiful,” he says, adding that some (most notably, the velvet paintings) had a measure of sarcasm. “The sunsets were a pictorial vision of the objects I was making.”

He steered clear of resin for almost 25 years, until faced with repairing the black resin bar damaged at Centre Pompidou. Then Alexander discovered the less-toxic polyurethane resin and found an ally in a mannequin maker who helped him make molds and master the material. “[The Pompidou show] was badly curated and a lot of people were unhappy about it,” Alexander says. “But the exhibition was good for everybody in California art. For me it was a complete revival.”

Alexander has been creating thinner, more provocative pieces with polyurethane resin-including a new generation of cubes, wedges and bars, as well as a new series of “Drip” wall reliefs. “The material allows geometrics that I could never do in polyester,” he explains. “You can get a lot of drama. You’re attracted to the fact that it looks so delicate. I want the viewer to look at it and think it’s going to break, or think, ‘It’s going to cut me.’”

Polyurethane resin also holds color better than its nefarious predecessor. “It’s so much better than polyester resin,” he says. “The way polyester cures affects the dyes; you never get the true color you want. With polyurethane, you get what you mix. Urethane enriches it. The color is absolutely gorgeous.”

Paris was the starting point for Alexander’s resurgence, which has continued since in lockstep with the Light and Space movement as a whole. A 2010 exhibition at David Zwirner in New York celebrated the LA artists who recast East Coast Minimalism as an optimistic movement inspired by the ocean, sunshine, waxed surfboards, and shiny cars. In 2011-as part of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty Foundation-funded collaboration of more than 60 Southern California cultural institutions to tell the story of the birth of the Los Angeles art scene in the postwar era-the MCA San Diego opened “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface.” It was the most comprehensive exhibition to tell the story of Light and Space, and it renewed interest in the movement. “Pacific Standard Time was trying to show people everything,” Alexander says. “It really worked. And [‘Phenomenal’] was one of the best shows.”

In 2013, Nyehaus, a gallery in New York’s Chelsea district (which briefly operated a sister gallery in Los Angeles), opened “Peter Alexander: New Resin Works,” filling a restored four-story brownstone with contemporary and historic resin work. Gallerist Tim Nye had curated the Zwirner show a few years earlier. Meanwhile, in 2011, Nye had also organized a dramatic and ambitious installation of California Light and Space artists in Venice, Italy, to coincide with the 2011 Venice Biennale, taking over an historic villa and filling it with West Coast art. Alexander was among the prominently featured artists, his luminous sculptures finding new vitality as installed in their unlikely new architectural context, as well as a new European audience.

In fall 2014, Laguna Art Museum honored Alexander with its third California Art Award (the first two were presented to Ruth Westphal in 2012 and Wayne Thiebaud in 2013, respectively). He continues to show frequently on the West Coast, at galleries such as Brian Gross Fine Art in San Francisco and Peter Blake in Laguna Beach.

Alexander says Light and Space could have emerged only in Southern California. He considers himself “a product of the enormous optimism that we had here in the ’60s.” “No one was looking over your shoulder, like they do in New York,” he says. “Many LA artists went to New York at the time because that’s where there was power, press and money. I never understood why they did this. [Being a California artist] is about a whole sensibility. The impetus of what I do is about responding to this ambrosia of California.”

10/21/14 (Blue Box)
Peter Alexander
Urethane
8″ x 8″ x 6″
Photo: courtesy Peter Blake Gallery