Albert Contreras was a highly regarded minimalist painter in the ‘60s and early ’70s before he shut down his studio in Sweden and took up blue-collar work for the city of Santa Monica, California, driving garbage trucks and operating heavy equipment. Now he’s back in the studio and working in fast forward to make up for lost time; he’s had five solo shows since 2000, one of which included a staggering ninety-six new paintings. In his studio apartment just steps away from the Santa Monica Pier, the seventy-eight-year-old LA-based painter opens up about his fame as a young American artist in Sweden in the 1960s, his sudden twenty-five year break from the art world, and the renewed passion and energy with which he’s returned. Albert Contreras’s current exhibition is open through April 28 at Peter Mendenhall Gallery in LA.
How did you discover art?
I graduated from Hollywood High School in 1952. At that time all men were drafted to fight in the Korean War, and to avoid being sent to Korea, I joined the US Coast Guard. I was assigned to Miles Rocks Lighthouse two miles past the Golden Gate Bridge outside of San Francisco Bay, where I had a lot of time to read. One day I happened to pick up a book about the painter Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life by Irving Stone. The book totally captivated me and changed my life. This book went through me like a lightening bolt. I got all fired up and said to myself, “I want to be an artist.”
Like many artists of your generation, you used the GI to study art.
I was discharged from the Coast Guard in 1955 and enrolled in Los Angeles City College, a two-year community college. Later, I enrolled in the University of Madrid in Spain to study art history and literature.
After I got signatures from the embassy, I realized I did not necessarily need to go to my classes. I didn’t really want to study in the traditional way; I just wanted to have a ball, drink, and party with Spanish artists. I even bought a Spanish cape and pretended to be Picasso! Of course, I was still reading American art books about Rothko and Pollock, and I went to the Prado museum every day. The Prado was my artistic bible. This is where my art classes were, arguably one of the most important museums in the world.
By now I was an art student, not an artist. The desire to paint was in me, but for some reason, I felt as if I could not start to do so yet. I first needed to absorb as much as I could about the history of Western art AND to fall in love with all the beautiful blondes in Spain. To this day, I am still captivated by blondes.
Why the obsession with blondes?
I have dark hair and dark eyes. I love the contrast and you can see this in my art. (Laughs.) I have never made that connection until this very moment. I am the black in my art, and the light is the Swedes. Oh, I had my share of girlfriends.
When did you establish yourself as a painter?
In 1961 I went to Stockholm to become a painter. I secured a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant and found a cold-water walk-up studio. I lived very simply, and this is where I began to paint. I wanted to throw out all my formal art training. To the hell with it! I bought buckets of black paint and turpentine to make my first action painting—a black pattern on my white apartment wall. I took house paintbrushes and painted whatever came to my mind. Like Jackson Pollock, I literally threw paint on the walls.
For months and months I painted black and white action paintings. I would fill up my studio with them, carry them downstairs, and throw them in the street or give them away—whatever made sense—as long as I could keep on going.
When was your first gallery show?
My first gallery show was in Stockholm in 1961 at a University-run gallery called Observation. Altogether I spent nine years in Stockholm, where I had five solo shows.
After Sweden I went to New York to try my luck. I lived on 14th Street right off 9th Avenue. I was in a Leo Castelli group show, among others, but after a year of trying to secure gallery representation, I became discouraged and returned to Los Angeles.
How would you describe your painting style in the 1960s?
I was inspired by the inner creativity of the Abstract Expressionists: Jackson Pollock and action painters such as Franz Kline. In the 1960s I also aligned myself with the philosophy of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture. I thought, “Well, how can I paint the circle less and paint more?” Then one day a glowing ring came to me in a dream—a white ring on black. I identified myself more and more with minimalism throughout the late 1960s. The rules of balance, symmetry, harmony, and composition were the inherent rules driving my practice.
The circles started to get smaller and smaller and smaller until the circle became a dot. And then the dot just disappeared in 1968. I said, “Well, I carried the circle to the extreme end.” For a year I mostly painted black monochromes. Soon after in 1972, everything came to a crashing end. I didn’t realize it, but I had painted myself into oblivion.
You stopped painting all together in 1972?
In the 1960s there were a certain amount of artists that wanted to bring painting to an end. I wanted to be the one who killed it! Other artists in my generation such as Rauschenberg believed in themselves and were able to get past monochromes. I did not have that same belief in myself to get to that stage in my practice. I failed at what I thought I could do and, as a result, became very depressed. I left the art world, heartbroken, in 1972.
For what period of time did you stop painting?
For twenty-five years. I had to earn a living so I got a job working for the city of Los Angeles as a truck driver and street worker who operated heavy equipment. Without art, my light went out, and I was half dead.
Finally, in 1993 I started seeing a therapist. After five years of therapy, I realized I was ready to paint. Actually, it was right here in this apartment that I found painting again. If I had not spent those five years in therapy, I would not be painting today. So, thank god I saved myself and will maybe leave something behind me. I am thankful for that.
You say that you “want to do everything.” How has your style evolved?
I started where I left off, but this time it was different. Many critics started to refer to my work in the context of Kenneth Noland and other American color field painters, but this time around I did not subscribe to any particular dogma or style. I experimented with repetition and the application of acrylic gel in all sorts of colors on thick birch wood panels. I wanted to paint bold and bright, always guided by high contrast.
In 1999 I painted checkerboards. This had to do with my obsession with death and the movie The Seventh Seal by Bergman. After all, you have to remember by this time around I was sixty-eight years old. For a short while I was fascinated with the fish-scale-like pattern used to lay cement in the streets. Now I’m onto my most energetic series: X’s! I create each X with determination and glory!
What galleries have you shown with Los Angeles?
In 2000 I showed with the David Weinberg Gallery, but Weinberg only wanted me to create configurations of twenty-four twelve-by-fourteen-inch canvases. I told him “NO, I want to do everything.” I went three years without gallery representation and since have been with the Peter Mendenhall Gallery.
Well, what else but paint, paint, and paint! I wake up every day around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. in the morning and paint until 7:00 a.m. Then I walk down to my favorite breakfast spot for a bagel, coffee, and the New York Times. I may take a nap mid-day for fuel to paint into the night only to do it all over again!