As if he never stopped, Albert Contreras took up painting once again in 1997, twenty five years following his departure from the artworld.
In 1960, Contreras moved to Stockholm, Sweden where he found success as an Abstract Expressionist painter. In a 2001 interview with L.A. Times reporter David Pagel, Contreras described himself starting out as an “action painter,” and “wanted to paint an act.” Standing in front of a white canvas, Contreras would mix a can of black paint, “and try to build up some sort of emotion and express that emotion real quick.” Contreras harnessed these intense emotions and channeled the built up energy through circles, a motif he explored for a decade.
Despite his success during his nine year residency in Stockholm – which included five solo shows and acquisitions by curators from the Stockholm Museum of Modern Art, the Malmo Konsthall and the Goteborgs Konstmuseum for their permanent collections – Contreras stopped painting altogether. In the same 2001 interview, he told Pagel, “I had followed my art to its logical Conclusion, and there was nothing to do but stop.”
By way of New York City, Contreras moved back to Los Angeles in 1972 and spent the next twenty years working for the city of Santa Monica as a full-time employee, driving garbage trucks and resurfacing asphalt streets. It wasn’t until 1997, five years after his retirement, that Contreras decided it was finally time to begin painting.
Rather than reviving his earlier techniques of reductive minimalist abstractions, Contreras embarked on an exploration of form, varying in colors, materials, textures, and shapes. Contreras experimented with sculptor-esque techniques – using custom made tools to scrape and carve off paint he piled on the canvas – which produced dazzling geometric abstractions instilled with a refreshing optimism and vitality.
In 2000, USC Fisher Museum of Art exhibited Contreras’ work, which marked his triumphant return to painting. The success of his exhibition also launched what has been a long and fruitful relationship with the Fisher Museum, with more than 140 of his paintings in the museum’s permanent collection.
Contreras’ vibrant works have since found their way into other campus buildings including Ronald Tutor Campus Center and Student Union, where additional paintings were installed for the 2005 exhibition Albert Contreras: Luminous Scapes & Environments.
Making up for lost time, Contreras’ produced work at a prolific rate – creating almost 2,000 paintings over the course of twenty years – until his recent passing on June 17, 2017. Albert was a kind man whose contributions and achievements will always be remembered.
Blog post by Madelyne Gordon, intern at the USC Fisher Museum of Art.