Albert Contreras lived an artist’s life — twice

Albert Contreras, shown in his home in 2009, had quit painting in the '70s and drove trash trucks in Santa Monica. In 1997, he returned to painting. Contreras died June 17 at age 84.
Albert Contreras, shown in his home in 2009, had quit painting in the ‘70s and drove trash trucks in Santa Monica. In 1997, he returned to painting. Contreras died June 17 at age 84.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Albert Contreras made a name for himself as a painter of Minimalist compositions in the 1960s. His signature work, painted right on the wall, was a circle of deeply saturated blue-black whose edges faded to gray.

As Contreras’ reputation grew — while he lived in Sweden, curators from the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art, the Malmo Konsthall and the Goteborgs Konstmuseum acquired his work — the artist’s circles got smaller and smaller until at age 39, he stopped painting altogether.

"I stopped painting because I had set out to do what I wanted to do and it came to an end,” Contreras told me in a 2001 Times interview. “I had followed my art to its logical conclusion, and there was nothing to do but stop.”

That article, and a follow-up in 2009, detailed how from 1972 to 1992, Contreras drove trash trucks for the city of Santa Monica and resurfaced streets. He was content in his work, satisfied to see the results of his labor and happy to share in a crew’s camaraderie.

Retirement was less gratifying. It left Contreras at loose ends. Painting began to percolate in his head. In 1997, after five years of therapy, he dove back in.

For the next 20 years, he painted fast and furiously, making up, he often said, for lost time. Where his previous works stripped painting down its basics — single shapes, single colors and no canvas at all — his new ones embraced excess. They were over-the-top, no-holds-barred and unapologetically excessive. He accomplished what no other artist I know had done: stop making art for 25 years and then pick up right where he left off — only better.

Albert Contreras died June 17. He was found his recliner in his studio apartment, opera playing, loudly, on his stereo, said his Los Angeles art dealer, Peter Mendenhall. The cause of death isn’t known. He was 84.

Contreras was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. He had slowed down a bit in the studio, but he was still making work, experimenting with new colors and new materials — the decorative pebbles used in aquariums.

As an artist, what Contreras leaves behind is a second act defined by abundance, abandon and joy. Bold patterns in wild combination filled his new works. He piled on paint like nobody’s business. Sometimes he slathered it over sections that had been masked off with tape — which he tore off to form hard-edged abstractions whose optical kick is intensified by their dimensionality. At other times he carved into the layers of paint he had troweled on, like mortar between bricks or frosting on cakes.

Contreras at work in 2009. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

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Contreras made his own palette knives, their scalloped and serrated edges letting him shape paint sculpturally. He often mixed glitter into gel medium, along with sand, ink and a dazzling rainbow of iridescent pigments. His colors — screaming and sensuous — turned their back on subtlety for a kind of eye-popping outlandishness that is commonly mistaken for vulgarity but is actually sophisticated, idiosyncratic, original, appealing and intelligent.

Museums and galleries in Los Angeles and New York took note. So did critics and collectors. Contreras had more than four times as many exhibitions after his 25-year hiatus from painting than he did at the beginning of his career.

Having made more than 2,000 paintings during the last 20 years, he made up for lost time, and then some.

Albert Contreras, untitled, 2015. Acrylic on panel, 18 inches by 36 inches. (Peter Mendenhall Gallery)

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