Alexander, Once a Bad Boy of Houston's
Art World, Returns
Published 5:30 am CDT, Friday, April 11, 2008
By Lisa Gray
On a Wednesday afternoon, while curators were fussing over John Alexander's retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Alexander and I drank coffee in the walled courtyard beside the museum cafe. Judging by his paintings and drawings, you'd guess that Alexander is a tortured, angry soul, disgusted by humanity but in love with nature. In person, though, he's charming: profane and fun, a gossip and a flirt. Words were pouring out of him — stories about art, about growing up in Beaumont, about his old, wild days in Houston — when suddenly, he stopped cold.
I looked up from my notes. A grackle had landed next to our table.
There is nothing subtle about a grackle, and this was a particularly Texan specimen: a big, loud alpha male with a fan-shaped tail. Blue-black and iridescent, like oil. Equal parts repulsive and beautiful.
The bird fixed a yellow eye on Alexander, and Alexander, transfixed, stared back.
Finally, the artist shook his head, breaking the spell. But even after he started talking again, his eyes followed the bird. "Small wonder I paint those all the time," he said.
That morning, Alexander had marveled over the crates the museum used to ship his work. Amazing, he said: Every painting, and even the littlest drawing, had its own specially constructed crate! Some of those crates, he joked, were worth more than the drawings.
Self-deprecation isn't usually Alexander's style; he's more likely to swagger. But as staffers in blue rubber gloves carefully removed his works from those fabulous crates, he seemed cowed.
Typical uncrating jitters, said Alison de Lima Greene, the museum's curator of contemporary art. This phase of a big museum show is hard on artists. With a retrospective, the stakes are sky-high, and before the works are on the walls, it's natural to worry that the show — the artist's whole body of work — won't measure up.
Even more than most, Alexander sets the bar high for himself. Reverent of classical techniques, he still has the chutzpah to paint sunflowers (van Gogh's turf!) or waterlilies (Monet's!). Other Alexander works evoke equally intimidating franchises in Western art history: Goya's moral urgency, Durer's precision, Breugel's visions of hell. These references aren't winking or ironic. Alexander isn't "quoting" the Old Masters. He is declaring himself their heir.
In the museum, Alexander looked up warily at the gallery's soaring ceiling. And he worried out loud that even his biggest paintings, 10 feet tall, might look small in a place like that.
Almost always, reviews and introductions describe Alexander as a "Texas" artist — never mind that it's been almost 30 years since he left Houston for New York. Besides keeping a studio in Soho, he owns a place in the Hamptons.
The MFAH retrospective includes a drawing of an Australian crocodile, the jungle-y foliage of a Venezuelan rain forest and a blue langoustine that a waiter served to him in Spain. The black birds in his sketchbooks aren't Houston's great-tailed grackles, but the scrawny-tailed variety that inhabit his place in Amagansett; or they're the Florida kind, which he's painted eyeing goldfish in a Palm Beach pond.
But a "Texas artist" he remains, and that irks him. "It's pejorative," he says. "It's like being called a 'black artist.' You're not a full-fledged artist."
Even so, it's easy to see why "Texas" clings to Alexander. After all these years, his accent still sounds like Beaumont and he still wears white socks, the kind that go with a red neck and Blue Ribbon beer. And his spiritual home proclaims itself as loudly in his art as it does in his person: On paper or canvas, you see Alexander's enormous ambition, his willingness to pick fights, his desire to communicate as pungently as possible. In his political and religious paintings, you see a clear sense of right and wrong, good and evil. Such moral certitude is borderline extinct in the refined, educated-in-good-schools East Coast art world — more foreign than a blue langoustine.
In December, when a smaller version of the MFAH retrospective debuted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington Post reviewer Blake Gopnikreacted as if he'd bitten into a jalapeño when he was expecting asparagus. He labeled Alexander a "Texan long based in New York," then sniffed that one of Alexander's big angry paintings "is less a true nightmare than a bad dream after chili."
In essence, Gopnik accused Alexander of the things that irritate the East Coast about Texans: Alexander, he wrote, is too obvious, too eager to make sure the viewer understands his point, too ambitious in claiming the mantle of Goya and Bosch.
With reactions like that, you'd expect Alexander to play up his cosmopolitan credentials, but often he can't resist displaying his Beaumont roots; the stories are too good. "We never had any art around the house when I was a kid," he once told a magazine reporter. "Closest thing we had was a gun rack."
Famously, Alexander grew up fishing in East Texas bayous and camping in the Big Thicket. His dad, John Alexander Sr., was 68 when John Jr. was born, and the retired petroleum engineer had plenty of time to spend outdoors with his boy. Alexander's much younger mother hauled him to her Baptist church, where the preaching concerned good and evil, salvation and hellfire. Alexander much preferred the bayous and the woods.
When he decided to become an artist — maybe it was that Hieronymus Bosch painting that he saw in National Geographic — his parents were puzzled but didn't oppose the plan. Lamar University, in Beaumont, was so far out of the mainstream art world in 1964 that it still emphasized old-fashioned mastery of craft. Alexander spent hours drawing still lifes that involved vases, musical instruments and drapery, or copying drawings by Michelangelo or Da Vinci. Sometimes, when he's feeling curmudgeonly, Alexander complains that kids these days don't realize what hard work it is to make good art.
5. "Go straight," Alexander said authoritatively, so I switched off my turn signal and stayed on Bissonnet. I hadn't expected him to give driving directions, but the city remains imprinted on his brain.
We drove past the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston: one of his landmarks. Alexander and his first wife moved here in '72, after he finished grad school at Southern Methodist University. Growing up in Beaumont, Alexander had always considered Houston the Big City, his natural destination, and he didn't expect to leave. He landed a job teaching art at the University of Houston, and he sold landscapes — "driving-around-Texas-drinking-beer paintings," he called them — through the Meredith Long Gallery. That seemed like a good career.
But a couple of years later, Alexander fell under the sway of Jim Harithas, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum. Harithas, very much a man of the moment, had gold-plated art-world credentials: He'd been chief curator at the Corcoran, in Washington, D.C., and as director of the Everson Museum of Art, made that tiny nowhere place in Syracuse, N.Y., so hip John Lennon and Yoko Ono curated a show. In oil-boom Houston, Harithas saw opportunity. And in Harithas, Houston artists saw a connection to the wider world.
In photos from the mid-'70s, it's easy to see the macho tenor of those times. Alexander, his artist friend James Surls, and Harithas wore fat, porn-star moustaches and tight, tight jeans. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll were as much a part of the art world as paint.
In 1975, Alexander and Harithas judged the Miss Snake Charmer beauty contest, part of the annual Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater. A photo from the roundup became the poster for Alexander's one-man show later that year at the CAM. In the photo, Alexander holds a rattler just behind its head.
I'm not sure whether symbolism crossed Alexander's mind as he held that yard-long snake. But looking at that poster, reproduced in the retrospective's catalog, it's hard to miss. The snake manages to be phallic, Texan and biblical all at once.
Alexander, looking into the rattlesnake's eyes, seems at ease. He looks as if he's telling the snake a dirty joke.
6. Harithas believed that art needed to mean something, that it should have a spiritual or moral purpose, and he encouraged Alexander to push himself harder. One day, in Alexander's studio, Harithas noticed the doodles the artist made at his desk: weird faces, strange devil figures. Harithas urged Alexander to examine his demons.
Sometimes those demons seemed external: the demons of Texas, the demons of Houston, the demons of race that haunted the entire country. All of those surfaced in the case of Joe Campos Torres.
In 1977, at a nightclub on Houston's east side, white Houston police arrested Torres, a Hispanic Army veteran, for drunken disturbance. By the time they arrived at the station a few hours later, Torres was so badly beaten that the desk officer refused to book him and told the arresting officers to take him to a hospital. Instead, according to later testimony, they drove to Buffalo Bayou and threw Torres in. Two days later his body was found in the muddy water. The officers received light sentences; two of the three got off with no jail time at all.
The case riveted Houston, and right on the steps of the Houston Police Department's Riesner Street headquarters, Alexander spoke at an anti-police rally. For years afterward, he drew and painted bayous the color of blood.
On the subject of race, Alexander can be heavy-handed, even for viewers who like strong statements. High Cotton shows cotton on the stalk. They're pretty plants, but down around the roots the ground is covered in slave chains.
I like Melon Fields better. It hangs across from High Cotton at the MFAH and is just as plainly a statement about blacks in America — never mind that Alexander has said he painted it after hearing about the suicide bombing of an Iraqi fruit stand. The big painting shows a field of watermelons, some split open so that their fruit spills out. It looks luscious in reproduction, but standing in front of the 10-foot painting, you see its violence. The watermelon juice pools in the dirt like blood.
At the bottom of the picture, one of Alexander's black birds feasts on the busted fruit. I suspect this one isn't a grackle but a crow — as in, Jim Crow. And like most other black birds in Alexander's paintings, I suspect he stands for the artist himself, for a part of himself that Alexander doesn't like.
"The days of Sodom and Gomorrah," Alexander's friend David Berg calls the late '70s and early '80s, the years that followed Alexander's first divorce. Around that time, Alexander moved to New York for his career, but he traveled back to Houston often. Oddly, he and Berg — both single, both swaggering macho guys who appreciated pretty women — grew closer.
"John was a serious hell-raiser," says Berg. "And I was of that school myself."
Berg, a lawyer, says he wasn't part of the drug scene, and he sounds nostalgic for those days. But Alexander ran with an even faster crowd, and he knew things like which hotel in Miami would deliver cocaine with room service.
In Alexander's paintings, those years look miserable. His MFAH retrospective starts with that era, and the big paintings in the first few rooms are full of fire: a burning cross titled Go Jesus Go; a huge expressionist triptych called I've Been Living in a Hydrogen Bomb. "Psychodrama paintings," Alexander called them. They show the hellfire his mother's church warned about.
In some paintings from the early '80s, you can spot Mr. Friend, Alexander's cat: not a fuzzy, cuddly kitty, but a stand-in for Alexander's tomcat self. One evening, after the curators and installation crew had gone home, I followed Alexander through all those flames, all that darkness, all those scared-looking cat eyes.
"It's a feel-good show," I joked.
"A feel-good show!" he snorted. He grinned and walked to a bleak watercolor. Mr. Friend's pointy outlines stared out from a dark dark abstracted swamp of scary creatures: a saw-toothed alligator gar, weird birds and fish. Voice dripping with irony, Alexander read the painting's title from the bottom: "Welcome to my world."
All that pain was great for Alexander's career. He had shows at the prestigious Marlborough Gallery. The Metropolitan Museum of Art bought one of his paintings. He was reviewed in Time magazine, referred to in Vanity Fair.
In 1984 the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, welcomed him home as a favorite son. The museum hung 13 of Alexander's big soul-in-pain paintings as a backdrop to its gala that year. The Count Basie Orchestra played, and Alexander posed for a photo with his hand on the shoulder of Kathy Whitmire, Houston's mayor.
Were Whitmire and Alexander a couple? In July of '85, as Whitmire was running for re-election, the Chronicle ran a story asserting that she was "seeing" the artist, and ran a file photo of him in his Soho Studio. "One of the hottest painters in the American art scene," the caption called him — a reference to his career, not his looks. But the photo conveyed that other sense of heat better. Slouching in a denim cowboy shirt, with bedroom eyes and an expensive haircut, he radiated bad-boy masculinity.
They were a fascinating couple, Alexander and the sensible reform candidate, a widow who looked like the CPA that she was — or, as everyone at the time seemed to say, like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.
Judged purely in terms of public relations, Alexander's public appearances with Whitmire were great for them both. He gave her sex appeal; she raised his profile yet higher.
Was the story planted? David Berg enjoys the question. Berg, one of Whitmire's campaign advisers, admits that he helped engineer their connection. In his pool one day, he says, he and a friend were discussing Whitmire's image when they hit on a plan: They'd introduce her to Alexander, the tomcat, and let nature take its course. "Machiavellian," Berg calls his setup.
Whitmire, who now lives in Hawaii, didn't return my calls. And asked about Whitmire, Alexander is circumspect. "I was excited about Houston having a woman mayor," he says, "and I used what celebrity I had to help."
You think of the masks in his paintings.
Alexander painted his most moving mask painting, Venus and Adonis, in 1989. Two years before, he married the comedian Rosie Shuster, and the painting shows a couple in a bed, its headboard and foot made of a spiky, prisonlike fence. The man and woman wear masks, their big beak noses pointed toward each other. They are on fire — flames engulf each one, separately — but their body language is calm.
Alexander and Shuster's marriage was flaming out. They were burning. That's all.
You can't burn all the time.
In 1996, at age 50, Alexander was lecturing students at the Rhode Island School of Design when it dawned on him that, if he was lucky, he was at the middle of his career. He'd been painting scathing satires of the rich — socialites, Donald and Marla Trump, stuff like that — and he felt drained. He decided it was time to switch gears entirely, to return to fundamentals. He began drawing the way that he'd been taught at Lamar: realistically, from life, studying the Old Masters.
He'd buy a whitefish at the deli because he could draw it for a few days before it started to rot. And he drew lots of animals: birds, monkeys, fish. Unlike Alexander's humans, his animals' faces always show what they're thinking, reveal their inner lives. You can see exactly what's on their minds and who they are — even when, like the whitefish, they're dead.
Alexander also painted big, romantic, realistic landscapes, oceans and bogs under moody gray skies. Those canvases are purely beautiful — bravura painting with no psychodrama, no hidden politics. They are easy to love and easy to sell.
David Berg says the '90s were also a personal turning point for his old friend. Around that time, Berg remembers driving with Alexander on the beach near Alexander's house in the Hamptons. Two "little trust-fund kids" stopped their car in front of Alexander's Jeep, so that he couldn't move.
Berg saw Alexander reach between the seats for his tire iron. A slight but scrappy litigation attorney, Berg says he got ready for action himself. "I come from Little Rock," he says. "Johnny came from Beaumont. Those aren't genteel atmospheres. You learn how to defend yourself."
But instead of scaring the bejesus out of the young jerks, Alexander looked at his hands. "These hands can bring me $50,000 a painting," he told Berg. "It's not worth it."
"That's maturity," says Berg. "But to this day, I wish we'd gotten out."
On Bissonnet, near Kirby, Alexander points to the storefront where Janie C. Lee's gallery used to be. It was a great gallery, he says, one of the first to show national-caliber art in Houston. He felt lucky to have his works there.
What non-Texans did she show? I ask.
He reels off names: Helen Frankenthaler, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg . . .
Rauschenberg? I say. He's from Texas.
Yes, says Alexander. But he left early. He doesn't count.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Alexander was in Amagansett, but his current wife, Fiona, was in their fifth-floor Manhattan loft, only blocks from the World Trade Center, and their son Harry was at school. Fiona heard the first plane fly past, too low and too loud, on its way to the twin towers. She saw the second plane collide. She was on the cell phone with Alexander the whole time.
Something snapped, and Alexander soon returned to his old big, angry allegorical style. This time he tried to channel his disgust with the day's news into something timeless and Old Masterly, not specific to his own time and country, or to his particular hatred of the Texan now in the White House. At the MFAH retrospective, his recent political works are grouped in the exhibit's last room. Three big allegorical paintings — Ship of Fools, Parade and Three Little Pigs — offer visions of a world plummeting straight to hell: pig-faced men in suits; masked men in crowns; clowns in face paint; a sinking, rudderless ship; dollar bills and gold coins floating in the air; water rising a la Hurricane Katrina, or global warming, or maybe Noah's flood.
The paintings are as subtle as a grackle or a tire iron. What Alexander believes, he believes entirely.
He walked through that room a day after the uncrating. The show was coming together, and his cell phone was full of messages from old friends and collectors anxious to buy new work. Alexander seemed surer of himself than he had before, less worried about the high ceilings and his place in art history.
The political paintings charged him up. The small ones leaned against the gallery wall, waiting to be hung. Alexander pointed down at the green-faced Nixon. "Pervert," he said, grinning.
Gaining steam, he pointed to Roy, a circus clown whose name is sewn on his shirt. The name seems to refer to one of Alexander's least favorite hypocrites: Roy Cohn, the closeted homosexual who during the McCarthy hearings persecuted both Communists and gays. "Pervert," Alexander announced.
Then he pointed to Man With Two Lives, a bald, masked, lipsticked politician standing, arms crossed, in front of a flag. "Pervert!" declared Alexander — as if, three in a row, he'd won.
He said goodbye to the museum guard and swaggered out into the night.