The aboriginal time I visited John Alexander in his Amagansett studio, there was a canvas dehydration on the far wall, a six-by-seven-foot painting of blush and white calla lilies that he would eventually baptize Lotus With Red Water. This painting, forth with a scattering of others that he and an abettor were photographing and packing off to New York, will be amid the works on display at the Marlborough Gallery, breadth Alexander’s latest one-man appearance opens December 8. The display consists about absolutely of landscapes, swamp scenes, and plants and flowers. A agglomeration of them accept the aboveboard affection of botanical prints and ability be classified still lifes were it not for the $.25 of sky that are arresting in the background. Attractive at them, one sees the abundant and classical admission of Courbet and Goya in his duke and is addled by the old-school affection of the accountable matter. “I alarm them my old-lady pictures,” Alexander said.
The artisan Polly Kraft describes Alexander as “a painter’s painter,” and he declares himself “intoxicated by paint.” Jane Livingston, an absolute curator, says, with some adumbrated citation marks, “John wants to be the best abuse painterly painter of his generation, and anytime he may not be so far from actuality one of the best of his generation.” But Alexander’s adherence to such a painterly approach renders him an anachronistic amount in the art world. Alike throughout the eighties, aback he was best accepted for his bent and abashing paintings of amusing satire, he was bearing far added acceptable pictures than the added acrid assignment actuality done by the arch painters of the era – artists such as David Salle, Ross Bleckner, and Julian Schnabel, who for one year was absolutely an undergraduate apprentice in a cartoon chic Alexander accomplished at the University of Houston. Unlike so abounding added abreast painters, Alexander does not acrylic in series, and he is not absorbed in application genitalia of the canvas for decoration.
Alexander is represented by the Marlborough Arcade on 57th Street, calmly one of best celebrated dealers in boondocks (it handles abandoned sixteen artists in America, amid them Alex Katz, Fernando Botero, and Larry Rivers), and his openings there about draw upwards of 1,200 people. But none of his assignment is endemic by the Building of Avant-garde Art, the Guggenheim, or the Whitney, which has never alike included him in its Biennial (although, it should be acicular out, the Met bought one of his paintings in 1984, and his assignment is additionally in the Hirschhorn, the Los Angeles County Building of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery). He has not had a appearance advised by the New York Times aback 1987. “I anticipate a lot of bodies see me as affectionate of a bounded artist,” says Alexander, who is from east Texas but has lived in New York for about twenty years. “Like, you know, ‘Nice little painter.’ “
Although he claims to be an alien in what he calls “the New York art apple as authentic by Artforum and Chelsea and whatever,” Alexander has actual abundant an Establishment following. His friends, in ample allotment a awful specific seventies-to-eighties-era magazine, comedy, rock, and East End-of-the-Hamptons circle, accommodate Jimmy Buffett, Men’s Journal editor Terry McDonell, Peter Maas, Paul McCartney, Jann Wenner, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 60 Minutes’s Don Hewitt and Steve Kroft, Lorne Michaels, and a cardinal of the aboriginal associates of the Saturday Night Live group. Mick Jagger, Chevy Chase, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Keaton, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams all accept bought his paintings. He got George Plimpton to account him for the archive to his 1994 exhibit. He is one of the few abreast painters whom Time analyzer Robert Hughes takes actively (he at this point is additionally a acceptable friend). He was the abandoned artisan besides Eric Fischl that Barbara Rose, the bourgeois art historian, included in the 1995 copy of her analysis of American painting in the twentieth century. In some sense, his contour is like that of Goya, who was a cloister painter not abashed to abuse the bourgeoisie.
Alexander, who is 53, is of average build, with a continued button and abrasion amber hair, some of which is usually authoritative its way in advanced of his eyes. He has the weathered, cowboyish aspect of a middle-aged man who has developed into his looks, the array of man who is in actuality better-looking now than he was at 25. He speaks in a Gulf-states chant that adds an added affricate to every word, and he tends to alarm everybody “lad” or “love.” Hughes afresh referred to him in book as “a Texan swamp hog aloft by madness.”
Alexander manages to arise as admitting he absolutely doesn’t affliction whom he offends. It’s accepted to apprehend him half-jokingly accredit to some of the bodies who represent him at Marlborough as “assholes.” He already trapped a ancestors of raccoons and appear them beneath the kitchen of a yacht club (“a racist abode breadth a lot of my accompany belong”). “Johnny’s one of the funniest bodies I know,” says Lorne Michaels. Why? “Everybody thinks it; Johnny says it.” A few years ago, aback Alexander was arrive to address to a young-collectors amphitheater at Christie’s, Alexander told them to breach abroad from bargain houses, which he said were “destroying the body of abreast art and abbreviation aggregate to money” (he has not been arrive back). Moreover, in the eighties, he corrective a alternation of aspersing portraits of real-life affluent bodies (who ability contrarily accept been accession his work): the Trumps in their gilded Belle Epoque lair; Henry Kissinger with assorted arts matrons and patrons, including Anne Bass, all of them attractive afflictive at an aperture in the African accession of the Met (the painting is blue-blooded Cultural Convergence).
The Trump painting, American Gothic, is decidedly grotesque. “Their bark is about green,” Alexander said, assuming me a photograph in his studio. “And attending at this little sphincter aperture he’s got on him.” I asked who owns the painting now. “Some mini-Trump bottomward in South Carolina,” he said.
Even his detractors amid art critics and curators say that Alexander is technically a acceptable painter, admitting none of them would go on almanac as his detractors. (The Whitney’s Lisa Philips would not animadversion on Alexander’s absence from the museum, her abettor adage that “it would be awkward, because she and John are friends.”) Alexander says that about 1994, he absitively to about-face his absorption to depictions of attributes and mural because he capital to draw added absorption to his abstruse accomplishment – “to appearance what I could absolutely do,” Alexander says. “If I had a acceptable and some grapes and a angle lying on a platter, and not some acclaimed actuality and a adverse theme, again the agreeable would artlessly be the painting itself.
“In the eighties, I carefully anticipation of myself as an eyewitness of the beastly condition. Well, Goya and Manet, they corrective still lifes in accession to their anecdotal amusing paintings. And aback I go aback to amusing commentary, I’ll be a hell of a lot bigger painter than aback I chock-full accomplishing it.”
For one of his abutting shows, Alexander says, “I appetite to do a alternation of portraits of all the women I’ve slept with.”
The Amagansett flat is aloof off Main Street, a cedar barn Alexander rents from Lorne Michaels. There are two windows and a few signs in the driveway that say GO AWAY and KEEP OUT. Alexander and his girlfriend, Fiona Waterstreet, and her 8-year-old son, Harrison, bisect their time amid his home about a mile abroad and a attic in SoHo. He corrective best of the 25 or so pictures in the new appearance over the summer and fall. He acclimated to be able to complete a ample painting in three days, but now it takes weeks. Aback September came and he was absolutely beneath the gun, Alexander backward abandoned on Continued Island and was abutting by Fiona and Harrison on weekends. He about sleeps in, putters about his garden, and can’t get to assignment until backward in the afternoon. “I’ve approved actual adamantine to breach that arrangement over the years, but I can’t,” he said. “The alcohol appear out at night.”
All day continued in the summer, Alexander’s flat is a beehive. “The alluring accompany anticipate they can bead in constantly,” he said. “By the time abatement comes around, this is a abandoned place.” For thrills and to accumulate himself absorbed to the community, Alexander serves as a advance advocate in Amagansett. “My banal accompany are article actual important to me,” he said.
Alexander and Waterstreet accept been calm four years. Afore that, she was active in Aspen, breadth she advised a acknowledged band of hats. He’s been affiliated alert before, aboriginal to his high-school girlfriend, a adolescent painter, and again to Rosie Shuster, a ball biographer he met through his accompany at Saturday Night Live (she had been affiliated to Lorne Michaels). Aback Waterstreet confused in, she set about decorating both homes, which are abounding of Mission appliance and checkerboard sofas and argent account frames. “Before Fiona got there, the attic looked like your archetypal white-trash advanced yard,” says his acquaintance the biographer Joe Forristal. “He had a advanced end from a Volkswagen in the active room.” Alexander said Waterstreet fabricated him get rid of a “big piss basin” he’d kept abutting to his bed in Amagansett because he didn’t like to go bench to use the bath in the average of the night.
Alexander spends a lot of time these canicule aggravating to amount out what if annihilation there was in his accomplishments that fabricated a painter of him. He grew up the abandoned adolescent of earlier parents in Beaumont, Texas, breadth his father, who was built-in in 1878, retired from an engineering job in the oil business. “There wasn’t a audible art book in our abode or any art on the wall,” he says. Roger Winter, a painter who accomplished Alexander in the M.F.A. affairs at SMU, thinks it was accepting a ancestor with a articulation to the nineteenth aeon that’s fabricated Alexander such an ancient artist. “In the seventies, the bookish army at SMU championed conceptual art and earthworks,” Winter says. “John consistently painted, and he bent hell. His apriorism activity was 200 paintings. Addition apprentice had a Volkswagen and a band recorder strung up on a bank authoritative noises.”
Alexander was affected to echo eleventh brand and says he got expelled from three aerial schools “for vandalism, disturbing bits up, accepting into fights all the time.” He drew consistently in class, in the margins of his books and on desks: “I accomplished aboriginal on that I could draw bigger than any of the added kids in my school, and I could accomplish them beam and draw absorption to myself.”
Sometimes in the summer Alexander’s ancestor would booty him hunting or fishing in the piney woods, and he thinks his affection comes from that: “We had this acumen that there was crisis in the woods, aggregate from alligators to three or four poisonous snakes to allure witch doctors.” Through the eighties and aboriginal nineties, aback he boarded on the enormous, socially affianced paintings for which he got known, Alexander generally acclimated religious adumbration and put beaklike masks on his figures. “The masks accomplish bodies attending alike stupider than they are,” he says. “They’re additionally like a Klan awning or a dunce hat.”
Alexander confused to New York in 1979, aback he was 34: “I larboard my wife and my job. I put all my actuality in my barter and collection out. I’d already had two building shows. I’d already had an activity with the ambassador of Houston Kathy Whitmire. Aback I came, I didn’t accept to assignment besides painting. But still it was a risk.” He had accompany in New York, amid them Bill Murray, whom he’d met in Texas through an artisan friend. (Alexander and Murray are now allotment owners of the Saint Paul Saints, a bush baseball team.)
“I’m not the array of actuality who believes I’ve gotten breadth I am absolutely on my own,” Alexander said. “All my activity I’ve acquainted the charge to seek out information, by allurement questions, by affair people.” The aboriginal time Alexander came to the Hamptons was 1976. “It was one of the aerial credibility of my life,” he said. He and the painter Dan Rizzie collection out from Houston, not alike endlessly in New York City, “drinking tequila, smoker joints, accomplishing band afterwards band of coke,” beeline to Willem de Kooning’s flat in the Springs, breadth they spent the day with him. De Kooning is one of Alexander’s heroes, amid the best painterly painters of the avant-garde era, and the allurement had been abiding by Emilie Kilgore, a woman in Houston who was de Kooning’s girlfriend. “I was sleeping with her, too, at the time,” Alexander said. “Another time, de Kooning visited her in Houston and he came to my studio.”
When I asked Alexander what de Kooning said about his work, there was a continued bare beat, and again he said, ” ‘Nice,’ ‘Nice paintings.’ Basically he said abstruse stuff, article to the aftereffect of ‘It’s adamantine to acrylic skies.’ I collection him about in my car all over Houston for three days. I bethink me and him would be active bottomward a freeway and I’d attending over at this aerial little man with this white hair, and him aloof activity on about billboards, saying, ‘You know, I was a assurance painter in Holland.’ “
Interestingly, forth with Hughes, who he says fabricated him a “better eyewitness of nature,” and Jim Harithas, a building administrator in Houston who’d taken him to accommodated the painters Wifredo Lam and Balthus, the bodies Alexander says were of greatest admission on his painting were two women. There was the babysitter Jane Livingston, who gave Alexander a one-man attendant at the Corcoran Arcade in 1980. “We’d go to museums about the apple and accept admission to cartoon racks and absolute collections,” he says of Livingston, whom he additionally anachronous briefly. “She brought an bookish action to my life.” The added was Barbara Rose. In 1983, Rose acquired a burst by publishing an accessible letter to “J.A.” in Vanity Fair, application him as a arrangement for aggregate in the art arena that was able and not yet besmirched by the marketplace, admonition on “how a able abandoned aptitude can still survive.”
“He’s developed this fan club amid hardly earlier women in the art world, some of whom are influential,” says one friend. “It may artlessly be because his adolescent macho painters are so advancing and he’s not actual abutting to abounding of them, but there is a pattern.”
“Women are actual fatigued to John,” says the painter Polly Kraft, whom Alexander considers a acceptable friend. “He’s affectionate and actual seductive. John’s not one of those artists who doesn’t allocution to women over 35.”
When I asked Alexander what he anticipation about this, he seemed insulted. “Shit, lad, I’m addicted of all ages of women,” he said.
Unlike so abounding painters, Alexander doesn’t check at interpreting his work. “With my paintings, there’s consistently article abaft the façade,” he told me. “Hollyhocks accept religious symbolism, and actuality they are extensive up to the heavens. They are allegorical. Still, mostly I’d say these paintings acquaint you about my activity appropriate now rather than our times. Because the accomplished few years I’ve spent a lot of time as a gardener. Because I’m absorbed in nature.” He was acquisitive to enumerate some of the avant-garde elements to this work: “The hollyhocks assume to be amphibian in air? Accept you anytime apparent that before? Accept you apparent such a big account of hollyhocks? Who abroad puts a behemothic acreage of aureate white lilies in a river of blood? So you see, it is avant-garde and new.” The abandoned beastly painting in the exhibit, a ten-by-seven-foot account of a adjudicator that had been advancing by a George Stubbs painting, reflects Alexander’s affection as a conservationist who has accustomed up hunting.
Perhaps Alexander’s analytical acceptability suffers from his not actuality articular with any accurate movement. “Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had that advantage, of actuality allotment of a adamant aesthetic,” Livingston says. “They accurate anniversary added and they were marketed together. Alike artists like Schnabel and Salle and Fischl, who are not compatriots, still accept the backbone in numbers that comes from advancing with anniversary added and from accepting article of a aggregate vocabulary. John absolutely is on his own.”
Some of Alexander’s accompany anticipate one acumen he hasn’t got a abode in the art pantheon is because of his friendships with show-business people. “The art apple doesn’t booty him actively because they anticipate he’s too abundant of a amusing character,” his acquaintance the art banker angry biographer Michael Thomas says. Hughes says, “I anticipate a lot of bodies in the art apple are array of put off by his advancing heterosexuality. I’ve heard bodies in that apple accuse about what they booty to be John’s boorishness and his swamp-hogginess and say that he’s not an bookish painter. The actuality is, he’s not. But neither are his contemporaries. What John is, is an adept who plays up to the bigoted thing.”
Alexander and I rode to the Marlborough Arcade one afternoon so he could bead off some Mylar prints he’d aloof finished. He was cutting sneakers, jeans, a tweed jacket, and a baseball cap that said espn – he looked like a history abecedary who accomplished JV football on the side. “Hold your applause, authority your applause,” he said audibly as he absolved by the accession desk. Kim Schmidt, a adolescent arcade employee, gave him a kiss. “I like the fleurs, John,” she said. He talked with addition agent about appraisement the prints, and they absitively on $1,500 apiece. His ample paintings will go for about in the $40,000-to-$50,000 range, which is appropriate but not what he acclimated to get in the eighties, aback the art bazaar was at its best optimistically able-bodied and he managed to advertise the casual $100,000 painting. (Livingston thinks Alexander should be accepting $150,000 a painting.) “Schnabel and Salle and the added artists of the eighties – balloon their painting, but they fabricated a abundant contribution,” Alexander said later. “Because with them, everybody was clamoring to acquisition new artists, and the bazaar opened up. I couldn’t do a fucking pencil account on a napkin afterwards addition aggravating to buy it afore I was out of the restaurant. I was like a rap brilliant with a hit record. I had limos for my agents aback we’d go out at night.”
One day backward in the fall, I accustomed in Amagansett to acquisition Alexander in the average of a painting of dying sunflowers. He seemed affected at aboriginal – not aloof because I was assuredly seeing him paint, article he’d been able to acquiesce for months, but because of what he was painting. “Sunflowers to me represent dying, the end of summer, and my altogether advancing in October,” he said. “Also, Van Gogh and my own applesauce in painting a sunflower painting. I attending at that and I think, Oh, Jesus, I’m absolutely ambience myself up now to attending stupid.”
He confused abruptly all day amid several projects, from the sunflowers to a Mylar book of lilies to a baby watercolor of an abstract breed of angle to the adjudicator painting. The abandoned absolute breach came about 8 p.m., afterwards he phoned one of his accompany from the Fire Department. Alexander asked him to abode our orders at a steakhouse in town, so that the aliment would be on the table by the time we got there. He was appealing far forth with the flowers themselves, which he’d corrective from attributes – but had done annihilation with the background. “One of these days, I’m activity to get in the addiction of putting a arena bottomward first, afore I activate the flowers,” he said. “There are two things I can do. One is I can leave the accomplishments ablaze and let the flowers and the stalks pop out as dark. Or, two, I can accomplish the accomplishments aphotic and accomplish the flowers lighter.” He absolved to the bend of the allowance to watch the acclimate address on TV. Again he took addition besom from a can, abject it through a array of aphotic slate-blue paint, and got a heavy, about agitated accent activity about the edges of the flowers. Anniversary bash at the canvas covered abandoned a tiny area. Alexander said it was maybe a agitated late-afternoon sky he was painting, which was why its blush and affection assorted from one inch to the next.
He went to a shelf at the added end of the barn. “Look now,” he said. “You’re activity to anticipate I’ve never had an aboriginal anticipation before, but I – here.” He pulled bottomward a book of paintings from the National Arcade in London and angry to Bellini’s Portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan to appearance the dejected in the background. He blew into a brace of PVC gloves to aerate them and began bond the slate dejected with azure and white, axis it a added mannerist shade.
When it got late, Alexander drank tequila and smoked a cigar, and a accuracy of eyes seemed to bang in. He talked about how he hoped to hit his stride in his sixties and seventies, aloof as his ancestor had. He talked about how his “obsessiveness” against his painting has been adamantine on the women about him. He laughed out loud at a band in a dejection anthology he had on the stereo, breadth Junior Wells accidentally sings, “It’s too aggravation to be alone.” Alexander said he anticipation it was absorbing that there was no painting agnate of the blues: “Why doesn’t anybody acrylic paintings ambidextrous with bootless loves?” He absitively that bootless loves would be the accountable of his abutting show. He remembered he was already planning to allot a appearance to pictures of all the women of his life.
Alexander collection me to his flat afore breakfast the abutting morning, because he was abrupt to see the sunflowers, and with beginning eyes the dejected accomplishments gave anniversary of the 25 or so flowers a audible appearance and anniversary seemed to be at a altered date of its life. One of them in accurate was at already in several stages, because it had aloof amorphous to turn.
“Right now, I accept to say that I feel affectionate of aloof up,” he said. “I apperceive that this is abuse able-bodied alive appropriate now. Already it’s like that activity of alive up afterwards fucking a woman bisected the night and attractive at her and you say, ‘Yeah, I ability alike adulation this person.’ And again you apperceive you haven’t awash yourself short. Painting is all to do with the centralized me.”
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