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Surrounded By Art Material: An Interview With Alex Israel

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“I went to elementary school right here,” Alex Israel says pointing out his window. It’s a gated Westwood public school with three silver balloons waving out in front by the auditorium. He points to a high-rise apartment a few blocks away. “I moved into that building after college. I can see my elementary school from the living room window.”

The radio casually plays aggressive rap music and Alex is completely unfazed by this accompaniment. His bright blue Dodgers jacket makes a shiny rustle with each driving gesture. “It’s hard to give someone a tour through my life in a couple of hours,” he says turning a corner, eventually coming to a road closure. He points to a brick house as he makes a U-turn: “My best friend from third grade lived there.” He points to another house: “Another friend lived there. I went to her wedding two years ago.”

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If you couldn’t tell, Alex grew up in Westwood. He went to school in Westwood, he had his bar mitzvah in Westwood, and he still lives in Westwood. He is very connected to his neighborhood and to his history here. “A lot of the people I grew up with are still my closest friends.”

We approach Westwood Village. “I guess remaining so close to childhood friends is a rare thing in LA, since so many people move here as adults. When I was in art school at USC, everyone had moved here from somewhere else except for me. My classmates were figuring the city out and making friends. I was really lucky to have all of that taken care of.”

He points to a house with a bright green lawn. “My sister lives there. She’s a lawyer. So is my brother-in-law. They have two kids.”

He parks on Broxton at Weyburn. Alex explains his history post “small town” Westwood. “I was an art major at Yale. I studied sculpture,” he says, noting he graduated in 2003. “In between Yale and USC, I worked. When I was going to college, I had summer internships with a curator at MOCA named Ann Goldstein, and with the artist John Baldessari. I worked with them when I was a student and then when I graduated I got a job at MOCA working part time. I worked the other half of the week at Blum & Poe.”

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“After a year, I met Tobias Meyer. He was at a dinner party I was invited to and we got to speaking and then he invited me to breakfast the next morning. He then offered me a job working for him at Sotheby’s in New York in the Contemporary Art Department. I was learning the other side of things then—the market side of art, and I took the job. Soon after my arrival in New York, I quickly understood that the auction world was not for me. I actually knew that going in—I told Tobias when he offered me the job that I was very apprehensive to take the position, being an artist. He told me to just try it, and that if I didn’t like it, there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. My brief time at Sotheby’s was actually really fascinating. I learned a lot about how art lives once it leaves an artist’s hands. It was very valuable information, but working at the auction house just wasn’t what I ultimately wanted to be doing.”

Alex left the job after four months and began looking for a new job as he had a six month lease on an apartment. He came into contact with New York gallerist David Zwirner, who actually wanted Alex to work at his then uptown gallery, Zwirner & Wirth, which was a partnership with London and Zurich-based gallerist Iwan Wirth. Because it was the middle of Winter and Alex was very much missing Los Angeles, he ended up moving back West–and David suggested he meet with one of his artists, Jason Rhoades.

“Jason was making this giant sculpture called Black Pussy and he asked me if I would help him activate the sculpture by co-hosting a series of events in it,” Alex says, opening his car door. “It was a huge installation: there was a living room area, a stage, and a macramé area, these ritualistic social spaces built into sprawling work. We hit it off and I said ‘Yes!’”

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“I ended up co-hosting a series of events in his studio called Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé. There were ten of them and they lasted for six months. We had prepared for them for about six months before the first one. All of these great people came to the parties, it was an amazing, special thing. There was a little gallery in front of Black Pussy where we would sell things. I edited a book about the event called Black Pussy Cocktail Coffee Table Book.”

“Right after the book was finished and the ten events had happened and Jason was getting ready for the next project, he died. That was so devastating to me since we had become such good friends. It was very unexpected.”

Jason’s death left Alex in a sort of limbo as they worked so closely. He ended up being inherited by international gallery Hauser & Wirth, as Jason had set into motion an agreement between the gallery and Alex, so that Alex would work for them but remain based in LA, right before his passing. “Needless to say,things changed drastically without him,” Alex mentions. “Hauser & Wirth was great, though. It was all very sad and it was nice to be absorbed into a community that understood Jason.”

Working with Hauser & Wirth allowed Alex to continue his education, learning more about the art world and contemporary art. As planned, he remained based in Los Angeles, but traveled constantly to Zurich, London and elsewhere, to represent the gallery and its artists. He was unsatisfied, though.

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Surrounded By Art Material An Interview With Alex Israel 5“At a certain point, about a year after Jason’s death, I snapped out of it. I had always been making art in secret, but hadn’t been sharing it with people. My quest to enter the art world and to understand what it was all about had inadvertently shaped and formed my identity in the art world as a young art dealer. I knew that wasn’t who I was and that it was now time to change course and to dive formally, and publically into my work.”

After a year at Hauser & Wirth, Alex notified them that he would be applying to graduate programs. He was eventually accepted at USC’s Roski School of Fine Art and left the gallery in 2008 with a final hurrah working at Art Basel, at a moment in time that represented the pinnacle of the art market just months before the global economic collapse.

“My timing was really lucky,” Alex says.

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He dug himself into school and graduated in 2010. “It wasn’t that long ago at all. A lot has happened since then,” he says. His USC education combined with his art dealing experience really helped his post-graduate success. “There have been major advantages and disadvantages to having worked on the market side of art. I learned so much that isn’t taught in art school, and a lot of that information has turned out to be very valuable.”

In school, the biggest thing Alex had to learn was to get over a fear of showing his work. He also had to allow himself to focus, committing himself to his art making. USC helped him accomplish this.

Alex stops. He squints through his Freeway sunglasses, craning his head closer to the windshield: four bright yellow splatters of bird poop have dropped onto the window. He points at them: “Did that just happen? That’s really gross.”

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Alex steps out of the car and walks to the parking meter: there is an hour and forty minutes on the meter. “This never happens!” he says.

He walks to the Broxton and Weyburn intersection, stopping diagonally across the street from the Bruin Theater. “I grew up in this neighborhood. It was a movie village,” he mentions with a point. He lists theaters: the Bruin, the Westwood, the Fiesta, The Regency and the National, and even “one that used to be where the Whole Foods is now.”

He pauses: “Westwood in the eighties was very beautiful.”

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He walks down Broxton toward Kinross. He points out various stores: Aahs! was once in the storefront next to the Chipotle and of course, there were record stores, namely Tower and The Warehouse. We come to a Spanish style compound on the corner. There is a Verizon, a driving school, a hair salon, and a few jewelers in here. It seems like any other shopping center–this one just has a fancy Spanish façade to it.

“This place used to be the best,” he explains. “At night it used to be filled with vendors selling silver jewelry and friendship bracelets and all sorts of things like that. It’s really pretty, isn’t it?”

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There are no vendors in the square now but there are two big trees at the center. Westwood Village now is much different from the Westwood Village of Alex’s childhood. He can pinpoint when this change occurred and when the magic in the neighborhood disappeared. “I guess in the nineties there was a shooting at the opening of the movie New Jack City. They oversold the theatre and there was a little riot that broke out over the seats. Parents stopped letting their kids come to Westwood Village to hang out. Everyone started going to Century City.”

Many businesses closed after the shooting. A lot of the area still looks the same, though–especially in this corner shopping center.  “I love these Spanish tiles,” Alex says as he touches them. “This place was so cool. I remember coming here and getting friendship bracelets. It may be hard to imagine, because it’s pretty empty now, but when I was growing up, it was the coolest place to hang out, there were packs of kids! There was an arcade and a Johnny Rockets. It was like growing up in a movie.”

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He walks back to his car. He gets in and drives south on Westwood Boulevard.

“Los Angeles is one of the main subjects of my work,” he mentions as he gazes out the window. “Every day is an experience of all of this material, which for me, is an art material. Every day, as I move through this city, I’m experimenting with it. It’s a constant process.”

“I think that it’s clear that my work is engaged with ideas about the entertainment industry and entertainment culture. That culture allows for this city to exist and  to function as it does. My work expresses my desire to embody certain aspects of that culture, and to also engage with certain formal elements of the city’s physical landscape.”

His phone begins to ring. The car’s Bluetooth asserts itself and a robotic ring takes over the rap soundtrack. “I’m just going to let it ring,” he says. The ringing lasts for a few seconds. The Bluetooth attempts to force the voice message through the speakers but Alex returns it to the soundtrack.

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He resumes his explanation of how Los Angeles influences his work. “When I was in college, my work was all about missing LA, being homesick. I would come back to LA on vacations and breaks and I would take photos and videos of the city, my family and friends. I was always gathering material and bringing it back to New Haven to work things out.”

His work also incorporated materials and a color palette that reflected the city. He notes how sand and stucco were often incorporated into his pieces. A billboard for Oz The Great and Powerful comes into view. “Are you going to see Oz The Great and Powerful? I hear it’s one of the most expensive movies ever made.”

He turns left onto Olympic and into the parking lot of a strip mall. He parks and explains: “This is The Bigg Chill, a yogurt place my dad started with his brothers in the eighties. They sold it to the current owners and its still one of my favorite places. I used to come here every day after school.”

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He walks underneath the teal and baby pink sign, pushing the glass door to enter the space. It’s a very white space with a bright teal and pink neon “Bigg Chill” sign partially obscured by racks of health food. Alex mentions that the whole space was once sparser, without the racks of health food. Its design was “very Memphis derivative.” It was designed by Kanner Architects, who let bright white tiles, glass bricks and neon fill the space. It has changed a bit since then. “It’s a great aesthetic, it sort-of falls into that category of eighties throwback to the fifties. It reminded me of things you would see on television. You remember Saved By The Bell? And they would hang out at that place, The Max? It feels like that.”

The woman behind the counter grimaces and remarks that there is no photography in the space. Alex orders a blueberry yogurt. He explains that his family sold The Bigg Chill when their careers outside of it were too demanding. At one point, there were Bigg Chills Downtown, in West Hollywood, and in the Valley. The Westwood Blvd. and Olympic location is now the only one that remains.

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“I grew up on frozen yogurt so I still eat it every day,” he says on the way out. “I usually go to Pinkberry or Malibu Yogurt. Sometimes I will come here–but I go through phases. I generally prefer frozen yogurt where you do not serve yourself. I think it’s cleaner.”

He gets back in his car, exiting the complex. He points at a yogurt sign: “I’m making a sculpture of frozen yogurt right now. It’s going to be made out of marble.”

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He drives East on Olympic. He peers out the window. “My practice is very much tied to a process of resourcing this landscape. I’m trying to do that across different platforms. Sometimes that means making a product like sunglasses, sometimes that means making a time based work, or a media based work for the Internet, or an object that looks like the side of a building, or the sky. Other times that involves taking a detail and blowing it up to be more closely examined, like a sunglasses lens or frozen yogurt or a Spanish Colonial Revival widow-frame shape. That’s how I work.”

Since much of his work relates to entertainment concepts–As It LAys, Rough Winds, Easter Island Venice Beach–Alex makes his work from within The Industry: “Most of the objects I make are produced at Warner Brothers, on the lot. I use the Hollywood system to make them,” he explains.

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Before the artisans at Warner Brothers produce his works, Alex mocks them up at home, on the computer. “I work from my home studio,” he says, using a current project as an example. “Right now, I have to decide what I’m going to be showing in Berlin in April. I’ve already made all of the work mock-ups on my computer. I’m deciding now which pieces I want to have produced for the show. I’ve already decided on half of them–now I just have to decide on the other half. It’s narrowed down to about fifteen or sixteen options that I’ve mocked-up, and I need to pick eight to fabricate. That’s what has been keeping me busy.”

“The show will consist only of self-portraits,” he continues. “The self-portraits are derived from my As It LAys logo. Each one shows my face, in profile. The graphic was originally inspired by that moment in Hitchcock movies where the director turns into a line drawing of himself in profile. I’ve turned my graphic logo of my profile into a sign, which is being produced in fiberglass and painted in a variety of color combinations that reflect different aspects of LA culture. “

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Alex arrives at Holmby Park. He gets out of the car and begins to walk on the park’s track: “This was my baby park. I came here when I was a kid.”

He explains that he has an upcoming show this July at Le Consortium in Dijon, that will cover nine rooms and contain both new and older work. He also has a show in Stockholm at the end of August–but he doesn’t know what that will be just yet. He’s taking his time and starting new projects in the interim.

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“I’m exploring new materials and new forms and ideas,” he says. “I’m thinking more about the body, having just come out of As It LAys and being so focused on the head, and the idea of the portrait. I’m excited.”

He continues to wander around the track. He passes lawn bowlers and a man sleeping in his car. He sits on a bench for a moment and then heads back home. Alex has a lot of work to do.

For more on Alex’s work, be sure to check out As It LAys, Rough Winds, and Easter Island Venice Beach. He also has a show currently up at LAXART that is on view through April 20. Read more about it here.

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