May 27, 2020 3:55pm
Peter Alexander, whose unfussy, winsome sculptures enlisted industrial materials toward transcendent means, has died at 81. His galleries—Parrasch Heijnen in Los Angeles and Franklin Parrasch in New York—confirmed the artist’s death. In a joint release, the galleries said, “Whether through resin sculpture or velvet painting, Alexander actively sought to capture light through environmental sensation.”
Alexander is most commonly associated with the Light and Space movement, which was pioneered by a group of artists working in California during the 1960s. Having recently graduated from the University of California Los Angeles, Alexander picked up what would become his signature medium, resin, in the mid-’60s. He happened upon it while waxing his surfboard, after realizing that the resin would dry up in a Dixie cup that held it over time.
“When I started working in resin, it was plastic,” Alexander said in a 1995–96 oral history conducted by the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. “Art was not made out of plastic in those days. Art was made out of all the things that history has said art is made of. So one of the reasons why I liked plastic was that it was sort of anti-art, so to speak.”
Like his Light and Space colleagues, among them Larry Bell and DeWain Valentine, Alexander wound up producing understated, sleek objects that seemed at times to reinterpret Minimalism with a less chilly aesthetic. Often, the resin works take on semi-translucent cuboidal shapes, with colors that appear to fade depending on where the viewer stands with respect to the object. Because of their slick surfaces, some critics grouped his works with a loose style known as Finish Fetish. In a 1972 New York Times article addressing the L.A. scene at large, Peter Schjeldahl called Alexander’s sculptures “immaculate objects that portended a kind of mystical purity and, not incidentally, looked very, very expensive.”
Alexander continued to push the possibilities of resin throughout the late ’60s. He produced a number of works called “leaners,” which resemble thin monoliths leaned against walls, and he created innovate pieces such as Cloud Box, in which clouds appear to be suspended in a clear block of resin. He claimed that the latter piece was similar to Jan Vermeer’s paintings for the way it inspired a self-conscious, contemplative kind of looking.
Peter Alexander was born in Los Angeles in 1939. He initially went to school for architecture at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he studied under Louis Kahn, and later went back to school for art, transferring between several universities and ultimately ending up at UCLA, where he received a B.A. and then a M.F.A.
In L.A., Alexander fell in with a group of cutting-edge artists that showed at Ferus Gallery, which was then a nexus of the city’s art scene. These artists helped him show at two top galleries—Nicholas Wilder Gallery in L.A. and Robert Elkon Gallery in New York. In 1972, having become sick from his work with resin, he shifted his practice and turned primarily to painting and drawing. That same year, he appeared in an edition of the Documenta quinquennial in Kassel, Germany, curated by Harald Szeemann.
Over the past couple decades, there has been a resurgence in critical interest in Alexander’s work. In 2006, his art made headlines after it appeared in “Los Angeles 1955–1985,” a show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris where, shortly after installation, it fell off the wall and broke. And in 2011, as part of the inaugural Pacific Standard Time initiative surveying art in Southern California, his work was included in “Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950–1970” at the Getty Museum.
Even though Alexander’s works were not outwardly autobiographical, he claimed that they had a lot to do with his life. “They’re all responses to where you are and what you are,” he once said.