Big Man on Canvas

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.

Alexander, who is 53, is of medium build, with a long chin and thinning brown hair, some of which is usually making its way in front of his eyes. He has the weathered, cowboyish aspect of a middle-aged man who has grown into his looks, the sort of man who is in fact better-looking now than he was at 25. He speaks in a Gulf-states drawl that adds an extra syllable to every word, and he tends to call everybody “lad” or “love.” Hughes recently referred to him in print as “a Texan swamp hog raised by madness.”

Alexander manages to appear as though he really doesn’t care whom he offends. It’s common to hear him half-jokingly refer to some of the people who represent him at Marlborough as “assholes.” He once trapped a family of raccoons and released them underneath the kitchen of a yacht club (“a racist place where a lot of my friends belong”). “Johnny’s one of the funniest people I know,” says Lorne Michaels. Why? “Everybody thinks it; Johnny says it.” A few years ago, when Alexander was invited to lecture to a young-collectors circle at Christie’s, Alexander told them to stay away from auction houses, which he said were “destroying the soul of contemporary art and reducing everything to money” (he has not been invited back). Moreover, in the eighties, he painted a series of unflattering portraits of real-life rich people (who might otherwise have been collecting his work): the Trumps in their gilded Belle Epoque lair; Henry Kissinger with various arts matrons and patrons, including Anne Bass, all of them looking uncomfortable at an opening in the African wing of the Met (the painting is titled Cultural Convergence).

The Trump painting, American Gothic, is particularly grotesque. “Their skin is almost green,” Alexander said, showing me a photograph in his studio. “And look at this little sphincter mouth he’s got on him.” I asked who owns the painting now. “Some mini-Trump down in South Carolina,” he said.

Even his detractors among art critics and curators say that Alexander is technically a good painter, though none of them would go on record as his detractors. (The Whitney’s Lisa Philips would not comment on Alexander’s absence from the museum, her assistant saying that “it would be awkward, because she and John are friends.”) Alexander says that around 1994, he decided to turn his attention to depictions of nature and landscape because he wanted to draw more attention to his technical skill – “to show what I could really do,” Alexander says. “If I had a peach and some grapes and a fish lying on a platter, and not some famous person and a sinister theme, then the content would simply be the painting itself.

“In the eighties, I consciously thought of myself as an observer of the human condition. Well, Goya and Manet, they painted still lifes in addition to their narrative social paintings. And when I go back to social commentary, I’ll be a hell of a lot better painter than when I stopped doing it.”

For one of his next shows, Alexander says, “I want to do a series of portraits of all the women I’ve slept with.”

The Amagansett studio is just 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, divide their time between his home about a mile away and a loft in SoHo. He painted most of the 25 or so pictures in the new show over the summer and fall. He used to be able to complete a large painting in three days, but now it takes weeks. When September came and he was really under the gun, Alexander stayed alone on Long Island and was joined by Fiona and Harrison on weekends. He typically sleeps in, putters around his garden, and can’t get to work until late in the afternoon. “I’ve tried very hard to break that pattern over the years, but I can’t,” he said. “The spirits come out at night.”

All day long in the summer, Alexander’s studio is a beehive. “The glamorous friends think they can drop in constantly,” he said. “By the time fall comes around, this is a lonely place.” For thrills and to keep himself attached to the community, Alexander serves as a volunteer fireman in Amagansett. “My working-class friends are something very important to me,” he said.

Alexander and Waterstreet have been together four years. Before that, she was living in Aspen, where she designed a successful line of hats. He’s been married twice before, first to his high-school girlfriend, a fellow painter, and then to Rosie Shuster, a comedy writer he met through his friends at Saturday Night Live (she had been married to Lorne Michaels). When Waterstreet moved in, she set about decorating both homes, which are full of Mission furniture and plaid sofas and silver picture frames. “Before Fiona got there, the loft looked like your typical white-trash front yard,” says his friend the screenwriter Joe Forristal. “He had a front end from a Volkswagen in the living room.” Alexander said Waterstreet made him get rid of a “big piss basin” he’d kept next to his bed in Amagansett because he didn’t like to go downstairs to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Alexander spends a lot of time these days trying to figure out what if anything there was in his background that made a painter of him. He grew up the only child of older parents in Beaumont, Texas, where his father, who was born in 1878, retired from an engineering job in the oil business. “There wasn’t a single art book in our house or any art on the wall,” he says. Roger Winter, a painter who taught Alexander in the M.F.A. program at SMU, thinks it was having a father with a link to the nineteenth century that’s made Alexander such an old-fashioned artist. “In the seventies, the intellectual crowd at SMU championed conceptual art and earthworks,” Winter says. “John always painted, and he caught hell. His thesis project was 200 paintings. Another student had a Volkswagen and a tape recorder strung up on a wall making noises.”

Alexander was forced to repeat eleventh grade and says he got expelled from three high schools “for vandalism, tearing shit up, getting into fights all the time.” He drew constantly in class, in the margins of his books and on desks: “I realized early on that I could draw better than any of the other kids in my school, and I could make them laugh and draw attention to myself.”

Sometimes in the summer Alexander’s father would take him hunting or fishing in the piney woods, and he thinks his sensibility comes from that: “We had this perception that there was danger in the woods, everything from alligators to three or four poisonous snakes to voodoo witch doctors.” Through the eighties and early nineties, when he embarked on the enormous, socially engaged paintings for which he got known, Alexander often used religious imagery and put beaklike masks on his figures. “The masks make people look even stupider than they are,” he says. “They’re also like a Klan hood or a dunce hat.”

Alexander moved to New York in 1979, when he was 34: “I left my wife and my job. I put all my stuff in my truck and drove out. I’d already had two museum shows. I’d already had an affair with the mayor of Houston Kathy Whitmire. When I came, I didn’t have to work besides painting. But still it was a risk.” He had friends in New York, among them Bill Murray, whom he’d met in Texas through an artist friend. (Alexander and Murray are now part owners of the Saint Paul Saints, a minor-league baseball team.)

“I’m not the sort of person who believes I’ve gotten where I am completely on my own,” Alexander said. “All my life I’ve felt the need to seek out information, by asking questions, by meeting people.” The first time Alexander came to the Hamptons was 1976. “It was one of the high points of my life,” he said. He and the painter Dan Rizzie drove out from Houston, not even stopping in New York City, “drinking tequila, smoking joints, doing line after line of coke,” straight to Willem de Kooning’s studio in the Springs, where they spent the day with him. De Kooning is one of Alexander’s heroes, among the most painterly painters of the modern era, and the invitation had been arranged 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 long blank beat, and then he said, ” ‘Nice,’ ‘Nice paintings.’ Basically he said technical stuff, something to the effect of ‘It’s hard to paint skies.’ I drove him around in my car all over Houston for three days. I remember me and him would be driving down a freeway and I’d look over at this delicate little man with this white hair, and him just going on about billboards, saying, ‘You know, I was a sign painter in Holland.’ “

Interestingly, along with Hughes, who he says made him a “better observer of nature,” and Jim Harithas, a museum director in Houston who’d taken him to meet the painters Wifredo Lam and Balthus, the people Alexander says were of greatest influence on his painting were two women. There was the curator Jane Livingston, who gave Alexander a one-man retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery in 1980. “We’d go to museums around the world and have access to drawing racks and entire collections,” he says of Livingston, whom he also dated briefly. “She brought an intellectual excitement to my life.” The other was Barbara Rose. In 1983, Rose caused a splash by publishing an open letter to “J.A.” in Vanity Fair, using him as a template for everything in the art scene that was promising and not yet corrupted by the marketplace, advice on “how a strong individual talent can still survive.”

“He’s developed this fan club among slightly older women in the art world, some of whom are influential,” says one friend. “It may simply be because his fellow male painters are so competitive and he’s not very close to many of them, but there is a pattern.”

“Women are very drawn to John,” says the painter Polly Kraft, whom Alexander considers a good friend. “He’s affectionate and very seductive. John’s not one of those artists who doesn’t talk to women over 35.”

When I asked Alexander what he thought about this, he seemed insulted. “Shit, lad, I’m fond of all ages of women,” he said.

Unlike so many painters, Alexander doesn’t bridle at interpreting his work. “With my paintings, there’s always something behind the façade,” he told me. “Hollyhocks have religious symbolism, and here they are reaching up to the heavens. They are allegorical. Still, mostly I’d say these paintings tell you about my life right now rather than our times. Because the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time as a gardener. Because I’m interested in nature.” He was eager to enumerate some of the modern elements to this work: “The hollyhocks seem to be floating in air? Have you ever seen that before? Have you seen such a big picture of hollyhocks? Who else puts a giant field of golden white lilies in a river of blood? So you see, it is innovative and new.” The only animal painting in the exhibit, a ten-by-seven-foot picture of a zebra that had been inspired by a George Stubbs painting, reflects Alexander’s passion as a conservationist who has given up hunting.

Perhaps Alexander’s critical reputation suffers from his not being identified with any particular movement. “Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg had that advantage, of being part of a cohesive aesthetic,” Livingston says. “They supported each other and they were marketed together. Even artists like Schnabel and Salle and Fischl, who are not compatriots, still have the strength in numbers that comes from competing with each other and from having something of a shared vocabulary. John really is on his own.”

Some of Alexander’s friends think one reason he hasn’t got a place in the art pantheon is because of his friendships with show-business people. “The art world doesn’t take him seriously because they think he’s too much of a social character,” his friend the art dealer turned writer Michael Thomas says. Hughes says, “I think a lot of people in the art world are sort of put off by his aggressive heterosexuality. I’ve heard people in that world complain about what they take to be John’s vulgarity and his swamp-hogginess and say that he’s not an intellectual painter. The fact is, he’s not. But neither are his contemporaries. What John is, is an aesthete who plays up to the provincial thing.”

Alexander and I rode to the Marlborough Gallery one afternoon so he could drop off some Mylar prints he’d just finished. He was wearing sneakers, jeans, a tweed jacket, and a baseball cap that said espn – he looked like a history teacher who coached JV football on the side. “Hold your applause, hold your applause,” he said loudly as he walked by the reception desk. Kim Schmidt, a young gallery employee, gave him a kiss. “I like the fleurs, John,” she said. He talked with another employee about pricing the prints, and they decided on $1,500 apiece. His large paintings will go for somewhere in the $40,000-to-$50,000 range, which is decent but not what he used to get in the eighties, when the art market was at its most optimistically robust and he managed to sell the occasional $100,000 painting. (Livingston thinks Alexander should be getting $150,000 a painting.) “Schnabel and Salle and the other artists of the eighties – forget their painting, but they made a great contribution,” Alexander said later. “Because with them, everybody was clamoring to find new artists, and the market opened up. I couldn’t do a fucking pencil sketch on a napkin without someone trying to buy it before I was out of the restaurant. I was like a rap star with a hit record. I had limos for my staff when we’d go out at night.”

One day late in the fall, I arrived in Amagansett to find Alexander in the middle of a painting of dying sunflowers. He seemed self-conscious at first – not just because I was finally seeing him paint, something he’d been promising to allow for months, but because of what he was painting. “Sunflowers to me represent dying, the end of summer, and my birthday coming in October,” he said. “Also, Van Gogh and my own absurdity in painting a sunflower painting. I look at that and I think, Oh, Jesus, I’m really setting myself up now to look stupid.

He moved abruptly all day among several projects, from the sunflowers to a Mylar print of lilies to a small watercolor of an imaginary species of fish to the zebra painting. The only real break came around 8 p.m., after he phoned one of his friends from the Fire Department. Alexander asked him to place our orders at a steakhouse in town, so that the food would be on the table by the time we got there. He was pretty far along with the flowers themselves, which he’d painted from nature – but had done nothing with the background. “One of these days, I’m going to get in the habit of putting a ground down first, before I begin the flowers,” he said. “There are two things I can do. One is I can leave the background light and let the flowers and the stalks pop out as dark. Or, two, I can make the background dark and make the flowers lighter.” He walked to the corner of the room to watch the weather report on TV. Then he took another brush from a can, dragged it through a clump of dark slate-blue paint, and got a heavy, almost violent rhythm going around the edges of the flowers. Each swipe at the canvas covered only a tiny area. Alexander said it was maybe a turbulent late-afternoon sky he was painting, which was why its color and mood varied from one inch to the next.

He went to a shelf at the other end of the barn. “Look now,” he said. “You’re going to think I’ve never had an original thought before, but I – here.” He pulled down a book of paintings from the National Gallery in London and turned to Bellini’s Portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan to show the blue in the background. He blew into a pair of PVC gloves to inflate them and began mixing the slate blue with turquoise and white, turning it a more mannerist shade.

When it got late, Alexander drank tequila and smoked a cigar, and a clarity of vision seemed to kick in. He talked about how he hoped to hit his stride in his sixties and seventies, just as his father had. He talked about how his “obsessiveness” toward his painting has been hard on the women around him. He laughed out loud at a line in a blues album he had on the stereo, where Junior Wells accidentally sings, “It’s too inconvenience to be alone.” Alexander said he thought it was interesting that there was no painting equivalent of the blues: “Why doesn’t everyone paint paintings dealing with failed loves?” He decided that failed loves would be the subject of his next show. He remembered he was already planning to devote a show to pictures of all the women of his life.

Alexander drove me to his studio before breakfast the next morning, because he was impatient to see the sunflowers, and with fresh eyes the blue background gave each of the 25 or so flowers a distinct character and each seemed to be at a different stage of its life. One of them in particular was at once in several stages, because it had just begun to turn.

“Right now, I have to say that I feel kind of puffed up,” he said. “I know that this is damn well working right now. Already it’s like that feeling of waking up after fucking a woman half the night and looking at her and you say, ‘Yeah, I might even love this person.’ And then you know you haven’t sold yourself short. Painting is all to do with the internal me.”

Big Man on Canvas