Above: Albert Contreras, “Untitled,” acrylic on panel, 12 x 14 inches. Washington and Lee University. © Original artworks copyright 2016 Albert Contreras. Reproduced with permission of the artist
In 2005, California-based artist Albert Contreras donated twenty-four paintings to Washington and Lee University. This lesson tells the story of that gift and situates Contreras’s work art historically. All material was prepared by Associate Professor Andrea Lepage. Lepage is an art historian specializing in the study of Latin American and U.S. Latina/o art. A selection of Contreras’s paintings hang in her office in Wilson Hall, Washington and Lee University’s art department.
Albert Contreras is well-known for his work produced in Stockholm, Sweden in the 1960s and 70s. His nearly monochromatic canvases, like Untitled (1971) reproduced below, featured a suspended central orb that decreased in size over time until it disappeared altogether. Contreras’s “quest to push the formal enterprise of painting to historical extremes”—to use the words of Ed Schad—situated him among a group of artists like Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, and Brice Marsden.  Each occupied himself with pushing the limits of the two-dimensionality of painting, experimented with reduction, and for Contreras, ultimately dematerialization.
“Looking back on it now, when I eliminated the little circle in the middle, I removed the personal, emotional and expressive element from my work. It became a mere idea that lacked feeling.” 
Albert Contreras, “Untitled” (1971), acrylic on canvas. Photo by Magnus Stark, courtesy Peter Mendenhall Gallery. © Original artworks copyright 2016 Albert Contreras. Reproduced with permission of the artist
Many have noted that as Contreras’s paintings became more and more reductive he painted himself into a theoretical corner—in his desire to reduce the object to its most essential forms, he dematerialized himself. In the late 1960s, Contreras moved to New York City based on advice from the Leo Castelli Gallery. He took a job at Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet, but did not achieve the level of success in New York City that he had in Stockholm.
By 1972, Contreras returned to Los Angeles and abandoned painting altogether. On his abrupt rejection of art-making, Contreras explained:
“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.” (Albert Contreras, cited in David Pagel, “Coming Full Circle, and Then Some,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2001.)
Elsewhere, Contreras noted that it was with disappointment that he felt compelled to stop producing:
“Mies van de Rohe’s ‘less is more’ was my mantra. […] I felt I’d pushed myself into oblivion. I’d lost the passion and maybe a little faith in myself. It was heartbreaking for me.” (-Albert Contreras, Cited in E.N., “Back to the Future,” CUE Art, September 17, 2001.)
Between 1972 and 1997, Contreras worked for the City of Los Angeles as a truck driver, garbage collector, and heavy equipment operator. Though he operated the Albert Contreras Gallery in Los Angeles between 1974-1978, where he exhibited photorealistic paintings, he took a lengthy twenty-five-year hiatus from producing his own work.
Process and Technique
In 1992, Contreras retired from his position working for the City of Los Angeles. At that time, he underwent therapy for about five years. Though the conclusion of Contreras’s treatment coincided with his return to art-making, it is unclear if his treatment somehow propelled him back into the art world. Hinting perhaps at some experience with art therapy, Contreras noted that, “I’m doing something that I want to do. This is a labor of love. As far as what it means…that’s for somebody else to talk about. I’m only doing things that I love to do. It makes me happy to do this.”
Whatever compelled him to rejoin the art world in 1997, he returned to painting full force and with extraordinary vigor, self-determination, and work ethic. Of his return, he said:
“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.’” (Albert Contreras, Cited in David Pagel, “Coming Full Circle, and Then Some,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2001.)
“What I am trying to convey—I hope—is sort of a boldness and an energy with these Xs.”
Above: Contreras demonstrates his painting technique
Photographer Magnus Stark produced a revealing film available on Vimeo that documents Contreras’s preparation and production process:
- Contreras first tapes the sides of the wood panel so that he doesn’t get any paint on the cradle of the frame.
- He puts on gloves.
- Next, Contreras paints on a layer of gesso (black or white).
- He adds interference violet paint, which changes color after it is dry.
- The artist then layers on the panel clear gloss mixed with glitter to provide a sparkling ground for each artwork.
- He adds pigment, glitter, fluorescent paint pigment, French ink (a shellac ink that dries transparent) and mixes about two ounces of desired pigment into the acrylic gel.
- He then adds some water to thin the paint.
- He next mixes all ingredients together with an electric mixer to achieve a very think but fluid acrylic.
Of note, Contreras employs mass-produced and custom-made (by his brother-in-law) trowel-like tools to apply the thick paint to the surface of the panels. These tools are similar to those used by Contreras while he worked resurfacing roads for the City of Los Angeles. His present-day tool choice and technique puts into question whether Contreras ever really gave up art-making between 1972 and 1997. Perhaps, instead, he simply worked in a different medium (asphalt) and a decidedly reduced palette (black).
Most of Contreras’s painting are small: 20 x 24 inches or even as small as 12 x 14 inches, but his output is extraordinary. Art critic John Yau’s response to visiting Contreras’s 300 square foot studio/apartment in Santa Monica, California follows:
“Contreras’ choreographed procedure is one way to manage what seems to me a chaotic situation in which the paintings are always threatening to take over the remaining space. They are literally everywhere you look. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that he tried to give them away shortly after he first started…” 
Interiors of Albert Contreras’ studio. Photo source: John Yau, “Weekend Studio Visit: Albert Contreras in Santa Monica, California, Hyperallergic, February 2, 2014. Photographs courtesy of Peter Mendenhall.
Provenance: Contreras’s Gift to Washington and Lee University
In 2005, Contreras wrote to Thomas Burish, then president of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. He offered to gift the university 24 paintings “in the hope that you might decorate a hallway, office, student center, etc.”
Ed Schad references Contreras’s gifts to universities in a recent overview of Contreras’s career: “He gave away paintings, he donated them to universities, placed them in lobbies, in offices, in the galleries of regional museums. Letters of gratitude from thankful individuals were placed in scrapbooks next to a record of an enormous output.”
Contreras’s offer to gift the paintings to the university was truly generous as he had already reestablished himself as a significant artist in California by that time. Art critic Joe Fyfe reviewed Contreras’s show at the Bill Maynes gallery in New York for Art in America. Fyfe wrote: “At first glance, because of the smaller scale of these works, one thinks of gift-box covers, candy or jewelry, but these paintings reveal a more pugnacious, dangerous charm, like a drugged gangster, giddy with pleasure.” 
Peter Grover, then Director of University Collections, accepted Contreras’s generous offer in July 2005 and collections staff accessioned all twenty-four paintings. The works hung in Dupont Hall, which was home to the art department at that time. In 2013 renovations to Dupont Hall necessitated the removal of Contreras’s pieces. They remained in storage for several months until collections staff installed six pieces in the office of Andrea Lepage, an associate professor of Latin American and U.S. Latina/o art history. It seems fitting that the pieces now reside in Wilson Hall, the new home of the art and art history department.
“I learned that art never comes to an end. It keeps reinventing itself, in all kinds of unbelievably beautiful forms. I believe that painting is subjective and expressive and intimate. An artist has to put some of his soul into his work if people are to get anything out of it. I’m trying to express my own vision of the beauty of symmetry and the glory of color. I want to explore as many forms of symmetry as I can, with as much intensity as I can muster.”
Above: Albert Contreras, “Untitled,” acrylic on panel, 12 x 14 inches. Washington and Lee University. © Original artworks copyright 2016 Albert Contreras. Reproduced with permission of the artist.
Art as Legacy
Contreras’s rapid production and impulse to donate his works to private individuals and universities reveals his desire to take control of his legacy. Contreras’s strategic decision to gift his works to universities across the country is particularly notable. As components of institutions of higher learning, most university art museums take as their mandate the preservation and promotion of cultural heritage. In addition, university collections are unlikely to sell artworks for profit, meaning that Contreras’s works will remain in the public realm–viewed and studied by students, professors, and university staff–across the United States.
Contreras conceives of his artworks as his surrogate children–capable of maintaining his legacy. He spoke spoke directly to the point in the Stark film, noting that:
“Well, these are my babies. I like to think about these…all my paintings are my babies… These hopefully will live on after I’m gone. I guess that this is my form of…what it is called…transcendence? The human race transcends itself …mostly… naturally through reproduction–through children. That way you go one living, and living, and living–a part of you–through your children. Well, I’ve never had children, so these I consider my children. So, if they last, then I’ll go on living for a while longer, and that gives me satisfaction. And really, one of the reasons that I do it is that um…I’d like to make my mark. Everybody wants to make a mark. There are different ways. Through children, through this and that… I happen to have wanted to do it through painting. I want to leave a mark. I want to leave something behind me. And on top of it, I try to be generous. I have donated quite a few works and if I have any kind of talent then it’s for this kind of things [sic] and hopefully other people will get some sort of joy out of this stuff–that I’d gotten out of it. That’s my aim–is hopefully–other people will see something that I see in these. And people have told me…they…I’ve had some good words from people. They say they want to grab it, they want to bite it, they want to chew it, it’s like candy almost to certain people, And that’s nice. I like to hear that. They lend themselves to wanting to be touched. And that’s another thing that I always tell people. Don’t be afraid–when they’re dry of course–don’t be afraid to touch them. […] I invite people to touch my paintings, to feel them. They want to be caressed.” (31:18-31:58)
Timeline: Albert Contreras (b. 1933, Los Angeles, California)*
- Studied at Los Angeles City College
- Attended Ramona Grammar School and Hollywood High School
- Enlisted in the Coast Guard during Korean War (served 2 ½ years)
- 1955: Used GI Bill benefits to attend Los Angeles City College; focus in painting and ceramics
- 1950s: Traveled to Mexico (studied at Mexico City College for six months) and Spain (studied at the University of Madrid for a year)
- 1960: Moved to Stockholm, Sweden
- Late 1960s: Moved to New York City based on advice from the Leo Castelli Gallery; took a job at Sotheby’s Parke-Bernet
- 1972: Returned to Los Angeles; abandoned painting
- 1972-1997: Worked for the City of Los Angeles as a truck driver, garbage collector, and heavy equipment operator
- 1974-1978: Founded and operated the Albert Contreras Gallery on Cahuenga Boulevard (specialized in photorealistic paintings)
- 1980: Painted for three months; destroyed
- 1992: Retired from City of Los Angeles job
- 1992-1997: Underwent therapy (some sources indicate that he was in therapy for 8 years)
- 1997: Contreras resumed painting; begins paintings emphasizing circular gestures
- 1998: Begins a series of grid paintings
- 2001: First solo New York show at the Bill Maynes Gallery
- 2005: Began to utilize custom-made palette knives2005: Made gift of 24 paintings to Washington and Lee University
- 2007: Began a gestural series focused on Xs
- 2007-09: Undertook a series of taped paintings
- 2012: Began painting Os
*See bibliography for sources used to compile this biographical timeline.
For further discussion
Compare these two works in in terms of Contreras’s aesthetic goals during two different periods of artistic production. In the 1960s, what artistic problems drove Contreras’s artistic quest? Explain how his his aesthetic preoccupations transformed over time.
Read through the Contreras timeline of important life events. Construct a logical order for the 24 works donated to Washington and Lee University, none of which were dated by the artist. Explain clearly the rationale for your order. Can you link some of these works to specific dates? Explain your rationale.
Watch the video in which Contreras demonstrates his painting technique. Now observe closely this painting (left) created by Contreras. List out the processes, in order, that Contreras undertook to create this piece. Next compare the work to another Contreras piece (right). Did he employ the same techniques to create both works? What are the differences?
 Ed Schad, “There and Back Again,” in Dave Hickey, Ed Schad, David Pagel, John Yau, Albert Contreras (Seattle: Marquand Books, 2013), 14-16.
 Albert Contreras, Cited in David Pagel, “Coming Full Circle, and Then Some,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2001.
 John Yau, “Weekend Studio Visit: Albert Contreras in Santa Monica, California, Hyperallergic, February 2, 2014.
 Ed Schad, “There and Back Again,” in Dave Hickey, Ed Schad, David Pagel, John Yau, Albert Contreras (Seattle: Marquand Books, 2013), 18.
 Joe Fyfe, “Albert Contreras at Bill Maynes,” Art in America, January 2002.
Bibliography for further reading:
Joe Fyfe, “Albert Contreras at Bill Maynes,” Art in America, January 2002.
Dave Hickey, Ed Schad, David Pagel, John Yau, Albert Contreras (Seattle: Marquand Books, 2013).*
E.N., “Back to the Future,” CUE Art, September 17, 2001.*
David Pagel, “Coming Full Circle, and Then Some,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2001.*
David Pagel, “Review: Albert Contreras comes full circle with thrilling new work,” Los Angeles Times, October 3, 2013.
David Pagel, “Full Circles,” in Dave Hickey, Ed Schad, David Pagel, John Yau, Albert Contreras (Seattle: Marquand Books, 2013).*
Ed Schad, “There and Back Again,” in Dave Hickey, Ed Schad, David Pagel, John Yau, Albert Contreras (Seattle: Marquand Books, 2013).*
John Yau, “Weekend Studio Visit: Albert Contreras in Santa Monica, California,” Hyperallergic, February 2, 2014.*
John Yau, “Portrait of an Artist with Three Lives,” Hyperallergic, June 16, 2012.
*Biographical details drawn from these sources.
This lesson was created by Andrea Lepage, Associate Professor of Latin American and U.S. Latina/o Art History at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. This lesson can be used or adapted by other educators for educational purposes with attribution to Lepage. None of this material may be used for commercial purposes. Copyright of original artworks belongs to the artist. Reproduced with permission from the artist. Please contact Lepage for information about the lesson or the Teaching with UCAH Project: email@example.com or (540) 458-8305.
Toolkit Lesson for Albert Contreras by Andrea Lepage is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.