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Coming Full Circle, and Then Some

Albert Contreras gave up on painting for 25 years. At 64, the L.A. painter made a colorful new start.

June 24, 2001|DAVID PAGEL | David Pagel is a frequent contributor to Calendar

F. Scott Fitzgerald once compared Americans to theatrical productions, saying that our lives had no second acts.

But times have changed. American lives--of all shapes, sizes and stripes--include all sorts of second acts. Albert Contreras is an L.A. artist who has made such a big comeback that you wouldn't believe it if you saw it in a movie.

In December, the 68-year-old painter had his first solo show in Los Angeles, a critically acclaimed exhibition of vibrant, eye-popping abstractions at USC's Fisher Gallery. Although remarkable, such events are not unheard of: Several late starters and overlooked artists from past generations have had recent L.A. solo debuts, including Anne Truitt and Leni Riefenstahl.

Contreras' show stood out because it was his first since 1969, when he exhibited a series of round monochrome panels in Stockholm. This too is not unheard of. The art world is fickle, and talented artists sometimes fall off the radar screen for years, even decades, before coming back into fashion.

But Contreras' career is unlike anyone else's because he didn't just stop exhibiting. He stopped painting--for 25 years.

Except for a three-month stint in 1980, when he made a series of works he quickly destroyed, he did not pick up a brush, stretch a canvas or open a can of paint from 1972 to 1997. During that time, Contreras was employed by the city of Los Angeles as a street maintenance worker, garbage truck driver and heavy equipment operator.

His resume reads like something out of "Rip van Winkle." As an artist, he went from being a 39-year-old with a respectable exhibition history to a 64-year-old who was just getting started, like any art school graduate, most of whom are young enough to be Contreras' kids. In any case, his bold geometric abstractions that went on view at USC made it clear he was painting as if he had nothing to lose.

That's always a good way to make art, and it has worked well for Contreras. He is now represented by Daniel Weinberg Gallery, where his second solo show in six months is on view through July 7. A New York exhibition is scheduled for September.

At Contreras' rent-controlled apartment in Santa Monica, which also serves as his modest studio (jars of paint fill many of the kitchen cabinets), he talks about the 25-year period when he wasn't painting as if it were nothing more than a semester-long sabbatical for an overworked professor or a summer hiatus for a screenwriter who has had too many back-to-back deadlines.

"I stopped painting because I had set out to do what I wanted to do and it came to an end. I had followed my art to its logical conclusion and there was nothing to do but stop. Anything else felt arbitrary; it wouldn't have had any integrity."

Words do not come easily to the painter, but when they do, they come in a rush, often with blunt honesty: "I don't know why 25 years had to pass. I was aware of what was going on around me. Of course I'd go to galleries and museums. But that wasn't enough to get me started. For reasons I can't explain, something in me just clicked. It was time to paint. I said to myself: 'You can paint again. There's something to paint."'

Although the long pause in the middle of Contreras' career may be an anomaly, it makes sense in retrospect.

Born in Los Angeles in 1933, he went to Ramona Grammar School and Hollywood High. As a student, he drew well but didn't take his talent seriously. To avoid being drafted for the Korean War, Contreras enlisted in the Coast Guard and served 21/2 years at a lighthouse near the Golden Gate Bridge. This is where the idea of being an artist first came to him. Embarrassed, he admits, "I know it sounds corny, but 'Lust for Life,' Irving Stone's biography of Vincent van Gogh, impressed the heck out of me. I decided to study painting as soon as I got out of the service."

Courtesy of the GI Bill, he started with a year of classes in painting and ceramics at Los Angeles City College in 1955, followed by six months of language studies at Mexico City College, an American school outside Mexico City, and a year of general course work at the University of Madrid. In Spain, Contreras spent less time in class than he did in the Prado, looking at paintings by Velazquez and Goya.

In 1960, he moved to Stockholm to begin to paint in earnest. Inspired by Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Alfred Leslie, he recalls, "I started out as an Abstract Expressionist, an action painter. I wanted to forget everything I'd learned about art in school and start fresh, with something from my gut. I wanted to paint an act. I'd mix up a can of black paint and stand before a white canvas and try to build up some sort of emotion and express that emotion real quick."

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