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Thanks largely to his groundbreaking resin sculptures, Peter Alexander remains surfing’s most broadly acclaimed artist.
By Bolton Colburn
Light / Dark
During Peter Alexander’s first year at UCLA, he surfed as much as he could. He was fixing a ding in his board one day when he noticed how the excess resin that dried in the cup had physical properties resembling water—yet it was also a solid, molded shape. Along with other budding artists in Los Angeles, who were seeking ways to make a mark on the art world and trying to differentiate themselves from artists in New York and San Francisco, Alexander began to see resin, fiberglass, and plastics as potential untapped media.
Some maintain that the resultant Light and Space movement founded by these artists is California’s first true contribution to the international art dialogue. Surfing is often mentioned as an influencing factor that went into shaping the context for such Light and Space, and Finish Fetish artists. However, Alexander is the only of these innovators who was inspired to use resin as a result of his personal experience as a surfer.
Alexander grew up bodysurfing in Newport Beach with his older brother, Brooke. In 1952, when Peter was 13, the brothers started surfing at Malaga Cove in Palos Verdes. By the time he and Brooke were attending college prep classes at Harvard School in Coldwater Canyon (now Harvard-Westlake), they were surfing throughout L.A., including Malibu, Pacific Ocean Park Pier, and Topanga. From those early years, Peter recalls leaving his Ricky Grigg-shaped board on the wall in Malibu—and finding it still there for his session the next day. At the time, Dale Velzy was shaping on the boardwalks in Hermosa and Manhattan. Grigg, Miki Dora, and Mickey Muñoz stand out in Peter’s mind as the personalities the brothers watched, both in and out of the water. On trips to Trestles, Peter and Brooke would pull off the road near the swamp, surf, eat crawfish, and spend the night, sometimes sneaking through the back doors of San Clemente’s movie theatres, under the dubious supervision of Dora, to see the latest surf films.
By 1957, Peter was off to the University of Pennsylvania for three years, returning to Los Angeles in the summers to work in the architectural office of Richard Neutra. In 1960, he went to London to continue his studies at the Architectural Association School. He then returned to California in 1962 and studied for two years at University of California, Berkeley, finally returning to L.A. in 1963 to study at the University of Southern California.
In the summer, he interned in the office of William Pereira, one of the most successful commercial architects of the period, who was tasked with designing the campuses and architecture of California’s emerging UC system. Peter, however, was beginning to speculate that being an architect would sacrifice his creative freedom for that of his clients’ needs. In 1964, he decided to change majors to art, and transferred to UCLA.
Partly due to having immersed himself in architecture, Alexander had an increased sensitivity to space, light, and volume. After seeing the potential of resin as a sculptural medium, he began to experiment with it by casting cubes of clear resin that contained subtle, colored shapes within their 9 × 9 × 9 inch dimensions. The difficulty with pouring blocks of resin is that they can easily crack and discolor. Alexander worked around this by pouring his resin in layers, letting one layer dry before pouring another. He experimented with introducing color by using an eyedropper to place a few drops of pigment into the resin between layers. The inability to control the outcome lent a magical, improvisational aspect to the process. After casting, Alexander finished the exterior surface to eliminate anything that could distract the eye from looking inside the piece. The cubes revealed luminous spaces and forms in their depths, with various characteristics depending on the series.
“In those first resin pieces,” he recalls, “I wanted frozen water, because growing up in Newport Beach, on the beach, the water was always the most magical place for me. This is what enchanted me about [Dutch painter Johannes] Vermeer, the sense that you were voyeuristically in a world that felt as if you were underwater—the absolute silence and emptiness of this very full, frozen atmosphere. So, the resin pieces were surrogates, I guess, but they weren’t surrogates for other art.”
Alexander’s efforts at casting resin evolved over time. His most celebrated works are freestanding, vertical bars of resin in a single color, cast in a single pour. The bars, generally 94 inches in height, are thickest as they rise from the floor and taper toward the top until they seem to disappear. One side remains vertically straight while the opposite side is angled, creating a wedge-like shape. The effect is somewhat like a shaft of colored light, hovering in space. Alexander talks about being inspired by looking out from a plane on approach to LAX and seeing how the water changed color and lightened as he approached shore.
Later, in 1970 and 1971, he created a series of resin pieces consisting of five or more opaque bars that floated on the wall. These bars seemed to hover in front of the wall, distorting our sense of depth perception. Soon after completing the series, he felt poisoned by the materials he had been using and decided to quit making sculpture with resin. In addition, he thought the emerging critical art dialogue surrounding this kind of reductive work, often referred to as minimalism, was nonsense, and he wanted nothing to do with it. However, the series of works he made in that medium, from 1965-1971, had already prominently positioned him in the art world.
At this juncture, Alexander took up more conventional materials, and started painting sunsets and aerial landscapes. He became interested in black velvet for its light absorbing capabilities, as well its campy, anti-art associations. Throughout his career, and irrespective of the medium he utilized, his work continued to be about sensory experience, no doubt in part due to his experiences surfing and being in the water.
Over the last ten years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Alexander’s resin sculptures. This was driven by revived market activity spurred on by a 2011 Getty initiative called Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980, which involved museums and galleries from all over Southern California. Coincident with this increase in market and exhibition activity, Alexander discovered urethane-based resins that are relatively non-toxic, do not grow brittle with age or discolor in sunlight, and provide much the same result as traditional resin. With this urethane-based resin, Alexander has been able to repair several of the pieces that he created in the 1960s and 1970s that had cracked over time. In its clear state, it is superior at conveying the tactile properties of water.
Water shares some of the characteristics of air. Although 784 times denser than air, one can still see through water, though its density slows things down dramatically as they move through space. Immersing oneself in water is a transformative act. It’s like being transported to a different world with different rules. Surfers are half in the water and half out of the water, somewhere between both worlds.
The conveyance of light through air, especially colored light, has always been equated with the spiritual. Natural light has played a huge role in activating architecture, going back to the ancient world at sites like Stonehenge in England and New Grange in Ireland. Light passing through the stained glass windows of medieval churches creates shafts of color symbolizing the ethereal and divine in this world. Light passing through water also produces beams of color and shimmering optical effects with mystical associations, ones that surfers witness on a regular basis.
Being in and on top of the water at the same time puts surfers in a unique position to observe some of the most compelling and spiritual transformations of light in the natural world. Peter Alexander’s work eloquently transposes such ethereal experience into tangible, sculptural objects. Surfing, and being in the water, has played a major role in forming his interest in the phenomenal world. He has transformed that interest into some of the most celebrated American art of the second half of the 20th Century.
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