Alexander Kroll sits in a paint covered chair on the driveway outside of his Silver Lake studio. He has dragged a few large paintings outside to open up his workspace. A smaller blue painting lays face up in the sun, drying on the driveway. An older gentleman in a flannel shirt walks up with keys in his hands.
“I don’t mean to interrupt, but I happened to drive by and I haven’t forgotten about you,” he says to Alexander, extending a hand to shake. He motions to a large, white based abstract painting. “This piece out here is very nice. Very nice.”
Alexander smiles and nods and turns on his marketing signals: “Well, I have a show November 18. I hope you can come to the party and see them. Can I write down the information for you?”
The gentleman smiles and gladly takes the information. He spends a minute or two with the paintings and then makes his way back to Silver Lake Boulevard. Fluke art encounters as such are common for Alexander as personal work is often made public by his unique studio setup that is housed within his tight garage and driveway. “It’s one of the great, funny things about having an indoor/outdoor studio. It didn’t used to be this way because, previously, the largest paintings I had were five feet.”
“The work that I have been doing has gotten to this scale–and then I have to work on them out here. I can store them in there but there isn’t enough backup room. It’s indoor/outdoor: I work on the small paintings inside and the large paintings outside. It’s great. It’s really not New York City.”
This distinction in art experience being specifically not New York is important because Alexander is a native to the city and grew up in Greenwich Village. He’s been in Los Angeles since graduate school and has found the city to be a very cathartic and enabling location for him.
“I’m from New York City,” he says. “I was blessed with an extremely supportive family. Between my mother and my maternal grandmother, who saw my talent and interests. I mean, childhood talent is one thing–but what they saw even more than that is a fierce interest in the activity of making art. For example, one of the biggest experiences that really showed me that this was something that I could do and that this is what I really want to do was the MoMA Matisse retrospective in the early nineties, which I think I went to ten times.”
“It was a big shift in my awareness as a kid. I think we all have those experiences, whether it is a book or a friend or a sexual experience: it’s something that shifts our awareness. For me, this was one of the big ones and, from this point on, I was really singleminded and obsessive. This was my interest.”
He explains that growing up in New York meant visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art every week and having deep, personal relationships with historical pieces of art. He went to a high school with a very strong arts program and eventually attended Yale to study art. “This was very important,” he details. “I worked with some really, really tremendous painters. At the time the people who were teaching were artists like Kurt Kauper and Sam Messer (who lived in LA and commuted to Yale once a week), who were my advisors. Then you had people like Jessica Stockholder, who was a huge influence on me. I used to carry my paintings up to see her because she was so interesting to talk to. Back then, the painting and sculpture studios were two miles apart.”
The experience of being so young and working with incredibly successful artists was huge for him. The program was small and he was able to work with faculty who were also teaching in the MFA program: the program had young students being molded by some of the most successful artists in America. After graduating, Alexander eventually got a studio space in between Tribeca and Chinatown and began painting–but he eventually grew tired of his setting.
“I eventually had enough of living in New York City. Even though I was in the thick of the art world because of my background and had a lot of friends with big careers, I wasn’t really ready for that and was really overwhelmed. Kurt Kauper was amazing in the generosity that he showed me after I graduated from Yale and was just beginning to be an artist. I was working in New York and decided I needed to change locations–and I thought graduate school would be the way to do that. He had a very different point of view not just as an artist but as an educator. He spent hours with me–in his studio, in his home–talking about these issues and pointing me in different directions.”
Kauper introduced Alexander to many Los Angeles MFA programs but Otis was the school that stuck with him. “I hadn’t heard of it,” he says. “It’s a great school but isn’t one that you hear about in New York City.”
He eventually met Otis professor and artist Renee Petropoulos at a New York graduate school portfolio fair in Fall of 2005. This was an important moment. “I sat down with her and we spoke for two hours straight–and there was a line and we were supposed to only have fifteen minutes. There was this intense connection and we’re really close. We may write a book together, actually.”
He attended Otis because of its intimate, focused community. He only had seven people in his class and the focused attention from working artists was what he needed. “It’s a school that has an equal measure of people who make objects as well as painters and sculptors. Roy Dowell is an amazing artist and I’ve been fortunate to have him as a friend and mentor and he runs the program. Kori Newkirk was also there and is an amazing artist and supporter and friend. He doesn’t make paintings but he really understands them: he’s such a smart man.”
These relationships with artists (he also mentioned John Knight, Judy Bamber, Benjamin Weissman, and Annetta Kapon as big influencers from Otis) made a huge impact on him. Ironically, the education was not a painting program and was rooted in an entirely different art pedagogy than the East coast has. This was very important to Alexander. “I had this idea that it would be important to study in a way that was rooted in language and not the technology of painting. I didn’t even go to a painting program: I went to an art program, despite being such a committed painter because the technique and technology of painting is a lifelong learning process. There is an element of creating painting that you get better at it. That’s because it is a technology, a craft. That evolves over years.”
He motions to the paintings leaning against a fence. “These are the best paintings I’ve ever made because I’ve had a breakthrough,” he explains. “Part of that is because I continue to work and grow: my capacity to make paintings is snowballing. That’s what should happen in an activity you are committed to! That is independent from the fact that this activity is one of constant growth.”
This breakthrough is a great byproduct of Los Angeles’ influence. When asked if the city has any impact on his art making, he started with saying, “A resounding yes.” It is clear that Alexander and LA are now deeply connected.
“Los Angeles is a huge influence on my work,” he explains. “Making abstraction is something that, before I moved here, I was always almost doing. I didn’t give myself permission to fully embrace it. I always made painterly painting, not that has anything to do with abstraction. But, in my case, an interest in painterliness has always superseded any sort of subject or style or modality. I needed to get away from my roots in order to open up my work both intellectually and emotionally and to understand what was exciting in my peers and in art history.”
“Living in New York I was so focused on my immediate reality, whether that was my family or my schooling or any number of highly influential factors. Moving here exploded everything. I mean, I had to learn how to drive! I’m one of those guys who grew up in New York City, in Greenwich Village: the idea of driving a car seemed, frankly, absurd.”
“You have to be intentional about everything,” he continues. “If you want to see somebody, you have to make that active choice. That can extrapolate to an intentionality about many of your decisions.”
This idea of making things intentional and making specific decisions inspired a big change in his work. It was a large aha moment. “I began to realize what the success and failures were of my work in graduate school. I had been interested in psychoanalytic theory applied to my paintings, I was reading Lacan, and I was painting my brother almost exclusively. The paintings weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. They were physically engaging objects but the viewer had literally no access to these ideas of painting that I was spending so much time putting into the work. It was a conversation with Roy Dowell who said that maybe this psychoanalytic conversation should belong on a psychiatrist’s couch–and maybe the painting conversation stays here. That was a big turning point for me. It occurred to me that this underscoring painterliness could take me to abstraction.”
Abstraction was a logical direction for him to turn and incorporates the same graphic knowledges he was employing–he’s just using them in new ways now. He has a controlled, Intuitive practice. “I never plan these paintings,” he says. “In fact, they’re really a lot like Los Angeles: there is a total lack of concern with planning. That’s not interesting to me. Each decision, each moment is highly considered and rigorously thought about but I don’t always think about the affect that will have on the surrounding area. For example, nobody knew when they put up Disney Hall that Frank Gehry’s design would raise the ambient temperature in the neighborhood by a number of degrees. I completely think that happens in paintings.”
“They aren’t thoughtless: it’s simply that they aren’t planned, which is actually a rigorous decision.”
“This is my direction for the time being,” he says, speaking to the future of his work. He has no plans to move from Los Angeles but does have some big upcoming projects, like some potential New York shows, a few showings in Miami, and a large solo show at Downtown’s CB1 that opens this week. (This showing is slightly ironic because his last showing over a year ago only included work of his that was less than a foot and a half wide.)
“I hope my work continues in this direction. I’m very happy with it. I’m happy with the ambitious scale–which is not beyond the human body. For a guy, I’m pretty short, between five six and five seven. I can reach the top of my paintings just so–that’s important. I need to be making something bigger than me but something that I can still reach. At the same time, I want it to be big enough so it gives the illusion of enterability so that I can project my body into it. That’s really an important shift.”
A neighbor exits from a gate and waves hello. Alexander waves back and there is a quick exchange about painting. There are always reminders about how public his artistic process is. “I crave privacy sometimes but then something like that happens,” he says. “Somebody will come up to me and start talking to me about a painting and how it affects them. This is a person that who may not necessarily know about art and is a neighbor or something. It’s a beautiful thing.”
For more on Alexander, be sure to check out his website. You can also check out Alex’s work at hist CB1 solo showThe Florist, The Loquat and Yes starting November 18. It will be on view through January 6, 2013.