A retrospective of artist John Alexander’s work debuted at the American Art Museum in December and travels next to Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts
Your work has been described as Hudson River School by way of East Texas. Do you agree?
It's certainly true. As a young artist, I always was very impressed with and deeply moved by American landscape painting. It just so happens that most of the great landscape painting done in the 19th century in American was in the northeast. Yet I was painting landscapes of the East Texas and Louisiana swamps and bayous that I knew and grew up in. When I finally came to the east, almost the reverse happened. No matter what I painted, whether I was painting the coast of Maine, it ended up looking like the swamps and landscapes I grew up in.
Your earlier work, you noted, was executed with "raw, maniacal energy." Now where are you going in your current efforts?
In those early paintings, the brush strokes are very expressive and very energetic. I was living in a studio in lower Manhattan and for the first time in my life, I was living in an environment totally away from nature. So the first couple of years I was there my work took on a very marked change. And it was all about emotion and expressiveness. In no way was I working from direct observation of the landscape around me. It was just all from my thoughts. So, it was very expressive and highly energetic. That was a very emotional time for me and it was a highly charged energetic time. That was all reflected in that work. The most typical example of that is that huge painting "I've Been Living in a Hydrogen Bomb" from 1982. Today I think that my work is entirely different. I don't work that way at all and I don't approach my paintings with that crazy, raw energy. They're much more thought-out and I do a lot of preparatory drawing. I used to just attack the canvas. Today, it's much more of a process.
You care about the environment. Your images from the early '80s make cause but then more recently, your images are so idyllic. Is that a sign of resignation?
I don't feel any less passionate. I am working on a painting right now that's called "Big Oil" of a oil derrick kind of all black and gooey surrounded by these big, beautiful, white birds. Also I did a painting that's not in the show called "Last Look at Paradise." They're more beautiful and they're not as angry and violent as the early ones. But I still return to that theme of man's encroachment of nature. That is a very common theme that I continue to use.
What is it about your garden, and the paintings you do there?
In the summer time, I have this beautiful place in Amagansett, Long Island where I have a garden. I have no real control over the environment—none of us do on any large scale. That just seems to be a battle we're not winning. But, in my own environment, I have control over that, and I try to make it as beautiful and as tranquil as I can.
What makes you angry today?
Well I'm certainly not very happy with the state of political affairs. It's safe to say that I'm deeply disturbed by the direction our country is going under the current leadership— that's a given. One of the things that I feel really passionate about still is the amazing loss of marine life in the oceans. There's such a catastrophe facing us in terms of the water, the ocean and rivers still continuing to the polluted at such levels that anywhere you go in the world there are worries about eating fish from the water. That is a concern of mine very much today. I mean I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast and I grew up next to oil refineries and I saw the increase in number of chemical plants and paper mills that totally destroyed the coast.
What is the significance of the masked figures?
I often try to make the people in my paintings look like buffoons, and I try to give them a satirical side. By putting masks on them, it makes the person less identifiable, so you—the viewer—can bring your own set of issues to that painting as opposed to me dictating who that is. And don't forget that the cast of characters changes. The mask creates a character that hopefully is timeless. The other thing the masks do for me is they make them look even more sinister and silly than they would anyway. They often, if nothing else, just make me laugh.
What has been the driving force behind your paintings?
I was always angry about the destruction of the natural environment. When I was kid in the 1950s, the parts of Texas where I grew up were fairly pristine and by the time I was in college, that had all drastically began to change. The destruction of all that I felt was beautiful and raw was and still is a very emotional and driving force in my work.
How would you characterize your 30-year career?
I'd like to sum it up by quoting something written about me some years ago in a Los Angeles newspaper that said I painted "nature at its grandest and man at his worst."