STEVEN ALEXANDER: PAINTINGS
David Findlay Jr Gallery, New York, 2016
48 pages, 24 color plates, hardcover
Unexpected Resonances: an interview with Steven Alexander
By Vered Lieb
“Rothko sought to speak as directly as possible to our core inner selves, be it in a flood or a whisper—passion dampened by as few mediators as possible. He wanted to communicate with our most core human elements; to those aspects as common to our hunter-gatherer ancestors as they will be to our successors millennia from now…” 1
“Color is the engine that animates everything.” Steven Alexander
Vered Lieb: Tell me about your background and how you became a painter.
Steven Alexander: Where I grew up, in West Texas, there were a surprising number of rather eccentric, very creative people, mostly musicians. I played in garage bands all through junior high and high school. I also drew constantly, from earliest childhood, and just always thought visually. My parents owned a small insurance claims adjusting business. They were amazingly supportive and nurturing of my inclinations, but otherwise there was no real connection to art in my family or surroundings. There was, however, this stark landscape that was utterly flat and capped by a vast dome of sky. It created a very distinct sense of scale, which is my most vivid memory of that place.
VL: When you live in New York City you take for granted how easy it is to just go to a museum and see great art. I am always curious about artists who have grown up outside of big cities. How did they encounter art and come to it as a way of life?
SA: I recall the first time I was ever aware of painting; I was around twelve and in the school library, where I happened to pick up a book on Rembrandt. Looking at the images of his paintings I was suddenly struck by the use of light in his portraits. Of course, I couldn't articulate this feeling at the time, but it was a realization of “light” as a material—a physical presence—and I thought, "hmmm, that's pretty cool." After that experience I began painting portraits, really horrible portraits. It wasn't until much later, when I attended Austin College, which is just north of Dallas, that I first visited a museum (the Dallas Museum of Art), and saw a Rothko. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a painter. My painting professor and mentor at Austin College was Vernon Fisher. He was the first actual working artist I knew, and he really showed me by example how to approach life as a painter.
VL: Having a great teacher and mentor can be life changing. What happened next?
SA: I moved to New York in 1975 to go to graduate school at Columbia University. There I studied with Richard Pousette-Dart and Dore Ashton and other brilliant people. My work-study job was as an assistant to Alanna Heiss (a pioneer of alternative exhibition spaces) at The Clocktower, and when she founded PS 1 in 1976, I designed and edited the catalog for the huge inaugural show, Rooms PS 1. Then, after Columbia, I had a wonderful studio at PS 1 for a year. I was immensely fortunate to be in New York at that moment in time. It was an exhilarating confluence of radical art, music, dance, theater, and attitude, and I jumped headlong into as much of it as I could.
VL: What have been your most important influences?
SA: Well there is so much, but to boil it down to some of the transformative moments for me, the pivotal painters were Mondrian and Malevich. What they did for painting was rescue it from the tyranny of depiction and narrative, and rediscover how to embody meaning through pure visual form. I say rediscover because form without depiction did not exist in Western painting, but of course was quite alive in other traditions, aboriginal cultures, tantric practices, etc. Their recognition of the metaphorical resonance of formal elements and relations, what we call "pure abstraction," echoed an essential cultural transformation from anthropocentric to cosmic consciousness. This shift in thinking in the West made Rothko and Newman possible, and Agnes Martin. It reconnected painting to its ancient primal origins in shamanic ritual and ontological speculation—the mystery of being part of and connected to everything else.
VL: I can see both Newman and Rothko as influences in your work.
SA: The Rothko Chapel paintings stand as a real pinnacle of the impulse I'm talking about. They might be the most uncompromising paintings ever made. I've been to the chapel many times, and each visit is a new and somehow revelatory experience. Another very important moment for me was seeing Blinky Palermo's installation, To the People of New York City, at the Heiner Friedrich Gallery in 1977. The visual choreography Palermo created, arranging simple color panels to form a sensate ritual space, amplified the associative power of color and material. And during this same time, around 1975, Jasper Johns showed his crosshatch paintings at Castelli uptown, again reinforcing for me how vital and mysterious and sensual painting can be.
VL: And so, what informs your work now?
SA: I would say first and foremost, the desire to perpetuate the great visual conversation, ancient and ongoing. The process is as endlessly varied and as singularly mundane as daily life. But the motivation is the search itself, for new visual questions and speculations about the nature of being in the world, through the language of abstract painting.
VL: Can you speak about some of the formal developments in your latest work—the thin vertical lines, your approach to proportion and space, your bisecting of the rectangle?
SA: These things have evolved over quite a number of years, so slowly that I don't even realize it until I look back. My primary concern is to create a simple resonant plane that is activated by color. By resonant, I mean it has to be inherently ambiguous and dynamic.
VL: Your use of color is very much intuited. It's not as if you use a pre-set formula, and the result is that each painting is unique.
SA: What I really think about is creating a presence that radiates out into the viewer's space, and that mirrors the viewer, so to speak. It is all very subjective, but when choosing among the endless possibilities, I try to make configurations that to my mind have some metaphorical relationship to the body, or perhaps to some physical, psychological, or cosmological condition. Color is the engine that animates everything. When I bisect the canvas with a thin vertical line it sets up a potentially symmetrical situation, but then I make it asymmetrical by the color relations on either side. The two sides may be read as two separate configurations divided by the vertical line, or as two parts of a whole configuration with the vertical line as a sort of spine, or perhaps a slit. Recently, I've been exploring a horizontal format, using a group of evenly spaced vertical lines that form a color array across a bisected plane. This configuration, which I call Tracer, suggests to me a sense of shifting time frames, or maybe a simultaneous experience of past and present.
VL: That relates back to your original statement about the painting surface needing to be “ambiguous and dynamic." How do you arrive at your surfaces? I notice that some of the small pieces have rough surfaces, while the large works are very smooth.
SA: With some of the recent small pieces, I am working with oil paint on linen. At that scale, the linen becomes more than a support; it is really a physical component of the painting. The paint is applied in very thin layers so the weave of the linen is still visible. These works came about as a search for a different sort of sensuality in the surface, after working with polymer paint for many years. The larger pieces, and some of the small ones as well, are made with polymer paint on canvas, again applied in layers, but in this case to form a smooth, almost waxy skin. I work the paintings horizontally, pouring the paint on and scraping it off with a cement trowel, building the surface slowly with multiple thin films of translucent color. It is how the surfaces are built that allows me to inflect the color with undertones and overtones. To use musical terms, it's like adjusting the "timbre" of the color chord. So instead of flat slabs of straight color, there is always a bit of "distortion" or nuance to the color, and the entire surface becomes unified with a sort of wash of "reverb."
VL: It also forces the viewer to come up closer to the work and intimately experience the surface. What do you hope the viewer will come away with?
SA: My hope for the painting is that it acts as a catalyst to dislodge the viewer’s imagination from its day-to-day pattern and that it creates a new place in the world for the viewer's consciousness to wonder, reflect, or just to be still. That's the regenerative power of painting.
VL: That is a very interesting word, “regenerative.” Would you say there is a spiritual aspect to your work?
SA: I don't really use the term spiritual, because I feel it can be so misleading, although it worked just fine for Mondrian in his time. The paintings contain no inherent meaning, only the potential for meaning. They are simply objects in the world that can be seen. It is the viewer's perception and experience and imagination that “generate” meaning. The paintings operate in the realm of metaphor, and because they are built of the most fundamental visual elements, they perhaps suggest the possibility of some sort of elemental experience or connection. I hope they are at least conducive to contemplation or to a fundamental realization of one's “aliveness.” It is possible that the viewer might experience a painting in a spiritual, meditative, or existential way. But those attributes come from the viewer, or may be activated in the viewer's consciousness as they interact with the painting. So although the painting is a specific visual presence, it’s meaning is unspecified—open. In this way it becomes an embodiment of "potential states of being," a place where unexpected resonances may occur.
1. Christopher Rothko, Mark Rothko: From the Inside Out, Yale University Press 2015, p. 7.