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Big Man on Canvas

Painter John Alexander commands high prices and famous friends. But his social calendar may be costing him art-world respect.


The first time I visited John Alexander in his Amagansett studio, there was a canvas drying on the far wall, a six-by-seven-foot painting of pink and white calla lilies that he would eventually entitle Lotus With Red Water. This painting, along with a handful of others that he and an assistant were photographing and packing off to New York, will be among the works on exhibit at the Marlborough Gallery, where Alexander's latest one-man show opens December 8. The exhibit consists almost entirely of landscapes, swamp scenes, and plants and flowers. A bunch of them have the straightforward quality of botanical prints and might be classified still lifes were it not for the bits of sky that are visible in the background. Looking at them, one sees the lush and classical influence of Courbet and Goya in his hand and is struck by the old-school quality of the subject matter. "I call them my old-lady pictures," Alexander said.

The artist Polly Kraft describes Alexander as "a painter's painter," and he declares himself "intoxicated by paint." Jane Livingston, an independent curator, says, with some implied quotation marks, "John wants to be the best damn painterly painter of his generation, and someday he may not be so far from being one of the best of his generation." But Alexander's devotion to such a painterly mode renders him an anachronistic figure in the art world. Even throughout the eighties, when he was best known for his gnarled and unsettling paintings of social satire, he was producing far more traditional pictures than the more ironic work being done by the leading painters of the era -- artists such as David Salle, Ross Bleckner, and Julian Schnabel, who for one year was actually an undergraduate student in a drawing class Alexander taught at the University of Houston. Unlike so many other contemporary painters, Alexander does not paint in series, and he is not interested in using parts of the canvas for decoration.

Alexander is represented by the Marlborough Gallery on 57th Street, easily one of most prestigious dealers in town (it handles only sixteen artists in America, among them Alex Katz, Fernando Botero, and Larry Rivers), and his openings there typically draw upwards of 1,200 people. But none of his work is owned by the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, or the Whitney, which has never even included him in its Biennial (although, it should be pointed out, the Met bought one of his paintings in 1984, and his work is also in the Hirschhorn, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery). He has not had a show reviewed by the New York Times since 1987. "I think a lot of people see me as kind of a regional artist," says Alexander, who is from east Texas but has lived in New York for nearly twenty years. "Like, you know, 'Nice little painter.' "

Although he claims to be an outsider in what he calls "the New York art world as defined by Artforum and Chelsea and whatever," Alexander has very much an Establishment following. His friends, in large part a highly specific seventies-to-eighties-era magazine, comedy, rock, and East End-of-the-Hamptons circle, include 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 number of the original members of the Saturday Night Live group. Mick Jagger, Chevy Chase, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Keaton, Steve Martin, and Robin Williams all have bought his paintings. He got George Plimpton to interview him for the catalogue to his 1994 exhibit. He is one of the few contemporary painters whom Time critic Robert Hughes takes seriously (he at this point is also a good friend). He was the only artist besides Eric Fischl that Barbara Rose, the conservative art historian, included in the 1995 edition of her survey of American painting in the twentieth century. In some sense, his profile is like that of Goya, who was a court painter not afraid to tweak the bourgeoisie.

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