35 years of Works on Paper
Art Museum of Southeast Texas
I can recall the first time I saw John Alexander. Twenty-six years later, I can give you the exact date: October 28, 1977. Performance artist Antoni Miralda had organized a performance by a drill team for the opening of his exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. After the drill team had performed several routines, they brought out a series of benches that were placed end to end across the diagonal length of the Museum’s interior. Brightly colored loaves of bread were then placed on the benches and trays of oddly colored dips were circulated through the audience. A few slices of bread were thrown Frisbee style into the air. Then in a moment the interior of the Museum became the scene of an enormous food fight that rapidly escalated into a full-blown brawl.
Somebody with a gun approached the drink ticket taker’s table and made off with the evening’s receipts. A man hurled a loaf of bread, football bullet pass style, which hit a girl of six or so and knocked her to the ground. At that point, Big John Alexander materialized, confronted the child bowler, took him outside the museum and––per a Southern euphemism––dealt with him. Then he returned and helped director James Harithas empty the crowd out into the night. After it was over, he appeared—unruffled and hands casually in his pockets—to briefly talk with Harithas and me.
As I had recently arrived in Houston from New York, where I had been in the orbit of Andy Warhol and his Factory, Alexander was a rough and different beast indeed. In 1977, at age 32, he was not yet the Marlborough Gallery artist, the intimate of celebrities, the painter who could cover a canvas in three days and sell it on the fourth for $50,000 that he would soon become in the 1980s. The question that forms when one is confronted by such an artist—a personality that is in itself a sort of force of nature—is, “are we reacting to the art or the personality?”
The retrospective at the Museum of Southeast Texas on display from April 12 to August 3, 2003, was devoted to Alexander’s drawings and other works on paper. With this exhibition the Beaumont native has, in several senses, come home. Alexander’s retrospective actually goes back further than thirty-five years. Of the hundred or so pieces on display, one is a drawing he made at age six, and another is a drawing he made in high school that was saved by his art teacher, Herman Hugg. A watercolor from 1968, made when Alexander was a senior at Lamar University, entitled Alabama Graveyard, makes a perfect bookend to his more recently rendered landscapes such as Amagansett Morning and Winter Heat (both 2001).
John Alexander, Winter Heat, 2001
20 1/4 x 25 1/2 inches
Collection of Chris Parnell, New York, NY
Alabama Graveyard captures a moment familiar to Gulf Coast residents, when a low-angled sun illuminates the landscape against the dark, cloudy background of a storm front. In the case of this landscape, the foreground contains a few tilted and weathered white grave markers. It is a moment of pure esthetic experience captured by a young artist exploring the physical world. It also suggests the feelings evoked by the brief flash of sunlight, which are more complicated than the mere recording of physical phenomena.
Alexander moved from that approach to another, painterly style of landscape that left him unsatisfied, until meeting Harithas. Their exchange lead him to begin exploring a sort of graphic, automatic writing that lead to his drawings and paintings of the late 1970s and 1980s, where Alexander seems to be spontaneously recording the jostling of memory and impression, hoping to connect to a subconscious richer and more talented than one’s quotidian consciousness. Not coincidentally, this period coincides with his leaving Texas for a loft in New York’s SoHo district. Many pieces in this period have political or sociological titles like Haig Lies, Good Morning America, Exxon Eats the Odalisque, and The Confused Tycoon. It was in this period that he came to the attention of the critic Robert Hughes and curator Barbara Rose, both of whom put Alexander in a category of contemporary American painters with few peers (in Rose’s case, just one peer, Eric Fischl).
John Alexander, Angry Simian, 2003
Oil and pastel
12 x 16 inches
Collection of Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art, Dallas, Texas
Then, in the ‘90s, Alexander returns to nature—the animals and landscapes that engaged him in his Gulf Coast youth—but brings his mature experience and mastery of technique to these watercolors and mixed media drawings. These works have been compared favorably to Turner, Dürer and Goya.
The Art Museum of Southeast Texas issued a catalog of the exhibition that contains reproductions of some twenty of the works in the exhibition, and a text by Dr. Edmund P. Pillsbury. Although the exhibition has closed, the museum purchased a large drawing (50" X 72") made in 2001, after a visit to Australia. A study in charcoal and pastel of an Australian crocodile entitled The Beast, Arnhemland, Northern Australia, which will henceforth be on permanent display.