Coming Full Circle, and Then Some

David Pagel is a frequent contributor to Calendar

F. Scott Fitzgerald once compared Americans to theatrical productions, saying that our lives had no second acts.

But times have changed. American lives--of all shapes, sizes and stripes--include all sorts of second acts. Albert Contreras is an L.A. artist who has made such a big comeback that you wouldn't believe it if you saw it in a movie.

In December, the 68-year-old painter had his first solo show in Los Angeles, a critically acclaimed exhibition of vibrant, eye-popping abstractions at USC's Fisher Gallery. Although remarkable, such events are not unheard of: Several late starters and overlooked artists from past generations have had recent L.A. solo debuts, including Anne Truitt and Leni Riefenstahl.

Contreras' show stood out because it was his first since 1969, when he exhibited a series of round monochrome panels in Stockholm. This too is not unheard of. The art world is fickle, and talented artists sometimes fall off the radar screen for years, even decades, before coming back into fashion.

But Contreras' career is unlike anyone else's because he didn't just stop exhibiting. He stopped painting--for 25 years.

Except for a three-month stint in 1980, when he made a series of works he quickly destroyed, he did not pick up a brush, stretch a canvas or open a can of paint from 1972 to 1997. During that time, Contreras was employed by the city of Los Angeles as a street maintenance worker, garbage truck driver and heavy equipment operator.

His resume reads like something out of "Rip van Winkle." As an artist, he went from being a 39-year-old with a respectable exhibition history to a 64-year-old who was just getting started, like any art school graduate, most of whom are young enough to be Contreras' kids. In any case, his bold geometric abstractions that went on view at USC made it clear he was painting as if he had nothing to lose.

That's always a good way to make art, and it has worked well for Contreras. He is now represented by Daniel Weinberg Gallery, where his second solo show in six months is on view through July 7. A New York exhibition is scheduled for September.

At Contreras' rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, which also serves as his modest studio (jars of paint fill many of the kitchen cabinets), he talks about the 25-year period when he wasn't painting as if it were nothing more than a semester-long sabbatical for an overworked professor or a summer hiatus for a screenwriter who has had too many back-to-back deadlines.

"I stopped painting because I had set out to do what I wanted to do and it came to an end. I had followed my art to its logical conclusion and there was nothing to do but stop. Anything else felt arbitrary; it wouldn't have had any integrity."

Words do not come easily to the painter, but when they do, they come in a rush, often with blunt honesty: "I don't know why 25 years had to pass. I was aware of what was going on around me. Of course I'd go to galleries and museums. But that wasn't enough to get me started. For reasons I can't explain, something in me just clicked. It was time to paint. I said to myself: 'You can paint again. There's something to paint."'

Although the long pause in the middle of Contreras' career may be an anomaly, it makes sense in retrospect.

Born in Los Angeles in 1933, he went to Ramona Grammar School and Hollywood High. As a student, he drew well but didn't take his talent seriously. To avoid being drafted for the Korean War, Contreras enlisted in the Coast Guard and served 21/2 years at a lighthouse near the Golden Gate Bridge. This is where the idea of being an artist first came to him. Embarrassed, he admits, "I know it sounds corny, but 'Lust for Life,' Irving Stone's biography of Vincent van Gogh, impressed the heck out of me. I decided to study painting as soon as I got out of the service."

Courtesy of the GI Bill, he started with a year of classes in painting and ceramics at Los Angeles City College in 1955, followed by six months of language studies at Mexico City College, an American school outside Mexico City, and a year of general course work at the University of Madrid. In Spain, Contreras spent less time in class than he did in the Prado, looking at paintings by Velazquez and Goya.

In 1960, he moved to Stockholm to begin to paint in earnest. Inspired by Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Alfred Leslie, he recalls, "I started out as an Abstract Expressionist, an action painter. I wanted to forget everything I'd learned about art in school and start fresh, with something from my gut. I wanted to paint an act. I'd mix up a can of black paint and stand before a white canvas and try to build up some sort of emotion and express that emotion real quick."

After working in this manner for six months, Contreras dreamed of a circle. The next day, he painted a dripping black ring. It became a motif he would explore for a decade, regularly exhibiting the results, often successfully. His works were purchased by collectors, acquired by museums and exhibited in konsthalls (public galleries). In Sweden, Contreras says, 'I was very happy. What appealed to me most was the romantic feeling of being out in the world, away from everything. I liked the idea of being a struggling artist. Although, I must say, I was doing OK."

In books and magazines at the American library, he followed the work of Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns and Kenneth Noland, all of whom employed similarly simplified motifs. Drawn to Mies van der Rohe's conviction that "less is more," Contreras zeroed in on the circle, making it smaller and smaller: "My goal was to put feeling and content into an abstract shape. I still like to believe that emotional expression was concentrated in those little dots, whose edges were diffuse, as if humming with uncontainable energy." Viewers found them to be compelling: Contreras' exhibitions received favorable reviews, and Ivan Karp, who was then working for New York dealer Leo Castelli, encouraged him to move to New York, where his career could be launched more effectively.

Contreras declined. But he does not trace the beginning of the end of the first half of his career to his decision to stay in Sweden. Instead, he traces it to his decision to stop painting dots on square canvases. At that time, Contreras began to cut circles out of particleboard panels. He painted them evenly and hung them on white walls, effectively creating room-sized installations.

"Looking back on it now, when I eliminated the little circle in the middle, I removed the personal, emotional and expressive element from my art. It became a mere idea that lacked feeling."

He stuck with this approach for several years, however, moving back to Los Angeles via New York. Then came the end.

"After awhile," he says, "less was less. The reductive dynamic lost its interest for me. It was sad but it was over."

Contreras went to work for the city, but to stay close to art, in 1974 he opened a gallery that specialized in Photorealist painting. Over four years, he gave D.J. Hall her first solo show and exhibited works by L.A. artists Daniel Douke, Andrew Wilf and Jim Murray.

In 1978, Contreras closed the gallery, and that was that for his direct involvement in the art world--until, as he says, "I was simply ready to paint again."

At first, Contreras picked up close to where he left off: making monochrome paintings. The difference was that now, rather than striving for surfaces that looked machine-made, he wiggled his brush as he moved it across the panels, leaving undulating brush strokes in its wake.

Over the next four years, Contreras added elements even faster and more vigorously than he previously had eliminated them. Beginning with a black-and-white palette, he soon juiced up his paintings with the addition of single colors. Then two, three and four were tossed into the mix. Today, a painting may include more than a dozen colors, which Contreras keeps under control by unifying their tint or limiting it to a narrow range.

To give his paints greater physicality, he has mixed in sand from the beach. Now he uses "interference" pigments that change color as light hits them from different angles. Slathered on with spatulas and trowels, thick layers of glistening acrylic form checkerboard patterns and madcap plaids.

There is nothing reductive about Contreras' new paintings, except that he makes them by piling on loads of paint and then removing big slabs, in the same way that a traditional sculptor carves away chunks of stone. "Maybe I was part of a group of people who thought that painting was dead," he says. "I don't know. A lot of artists were concerned with this crisis--with pushing what we were doing to its limit. I was part of that zeitgeist. Some would say I was a casualty of it."

He continues, "But now that crisis is over. At least mine is. I have learned that art never comes to an end. It keeps reinventing itself, in all kinds of unbelievably beautiful forms. I believe that painting is subjective and expressive and intimate. An artist has to put something of his soul into his work if people are to get anything significant out of it. I'm trying to express my own vision of the beauty of symmetry and the glory of color. I want to explore as many forms of symmetry as I can, with as much intensity as I can muster."

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ALBERT CONTRERAS, Daniel Weinberg Gallery, 6148 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Dates: Through July 7. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Phone: (323) 954-8425.

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