Peter Alexander lived and worked in Los Angeles for the great majority of his 50-plus year career, and his oeuvre reflects a love for that city and Southern California as a whole. Known for his groundbreaking resin sculptures from the late 1960s and early 1970s, and subsequent paintings which often depict aerial views of the city of Los Angeles, Alexander’s primary focus throughout his career was the nature and capacity of light. Alexander was a significant contributor to Southern California’s Light and Space Movement: light was both subject and medium for Alexander, and, through his work, he explored the light and darkness of Los Angeles and its surrounds in equal measure.
Peter Alexander’s work has been widely exhibited in galleries and institutions worldwide since the mid-1960s, and resides in the permanent collections of such museums as the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL), Museum of Contemporary Art (Los Angeles, CA), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York).
EAST OF THE SUN
Peter Alexander began making sculpture, tight chunks of tinted polyester in the mid-1960s. It was the time of plastics, and he was swept up in the winds of Light and Space. Derived from surfboard resin, the works look like bewitched windshields, laced pink, green, and blue. Other artists, including Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Helen Pashgian, investigated similar materials nearby. Circling around them was a culture of Jet Propulsion Laboratories, surfers, and car freaks. Doing their thing in California, near the beach, these artists looked west, over the ocean, somewhere out toward the sublime, in the direction of transcendence.
But in 1972 Alexander abruptly stopped making work. The times had changed, and his medium, it turned out, was toxic. Alexander wound up in the hospital. The art that came after took different forms. It was as if the artist turned around from the Pacific and peered back toward land. There’s a strange set of prints from 1972 that look like TV screens, one featuring McDonald’s golden arches. Afterwards came paintings on black velvet with fluorescent hues that evoked the depths of the sea. Collaged abstractions like Gulper (1982) sported pink splatters and forms in the shape of sale stickers. (Titles, too, surfaced after a decade of Untitleds and No Titles.) A lot of this work has the air of jazz lounges and makes one think about taste and class, about the difference between the kind of painting that decorates a club and the type that hangs on museum walls. Was there always a bit of seediness, or darkness, hovering over that California Sublime?
In 2005, history made its demands. A big exhibition, Los Angeles 1955-1985: The Birth of an Art Capital, opened at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the curators included two early polyester sculptures by Alexander. During installation they shattered one (these vintage works are more fragile than they appear), and that break brought Alexander back to the possibility of reengaging his earliest work. Instead of repairing the sculpture, the Pompidou commissioned Alexander to make it again, and the artist went on to make more work in a similar vein. Using urethane, he figured out a new, healthier way to fashion his ersatz philosopher’s stones. These new works turn back to the artist’s beginnings, but with a twist. On the one hand you can see right through them (almost). On the other hand, they thicken transparency. They color the atmosphere. Looking at them I can’t help but see all the things Alexander was up to in the interim. They make one aware of the history and culture that informs our vision, but which more often than not is kept out of focus.
© Alex Kitnick 2018
Excerpted from Peter Alexander, pub. 2018 by Franklin Parrasch Gallery, Inc.