Rachel Kushner on Alex Brown
First Published April 2019, Artforum
I MET THE PAINTER ALEX BROWN when I moved to New York City from San Francisco in 1996. We were set up on a kind of blind date by friends from his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, whom I’d known in SF. Among his Iowa friends, Alex had a certain legend attached to him. He’d moved to NYC, played guitar in various seminal hardcore bands (Gorilla Biscuits, Project X, Side by Side), produced a coveted zine called Schism, and almost immediately had an art career after graduating from Parsons.
“I’ll be wearing a blue anorak,” he said to me on the phone, so I could identify him when we met. We were more like immediate siblings than date possibilities for each other, and I repeated this line about a blue anorak to him for twenty years. He claims there was no blue anorak and what the fuck is an anorak, anyhow? But that’s what I remember. We went to see a Gerhard Richter show at Marian Goodman. I was aware that Alex’s grandfather Alexander Lippisch was a famous Luftwaffe aeronautical engineer who was recruited to White Sands Missile Range after the war. Looking at Richter’s paintings together, I immediately associated Richter’s blend of formal precision and German trauma with Alex’s. From the gallery, we walked into Central Park. We sat on a rock and Alex told me that one day, on a very similar rock, he’d been on acid with his friend the painter Alexander Ross. As they sat on this rock, tripping, they watched Alex Katz approach a Sabrett cart and buy a hot dog. Three painters named Alex: two on acid, one eating a hot dog. They left and went to Alex Brown’s place on Forsyth Street and, still tripping, walked into the scene of a dramatic drug bust.
Alex had moved home to Des Moines from New York just before I met him. (He was back in town for a visit when we had our blind date.) He’d been eaten up by the city for various reasons, including a telephone bill for something like thirty thousand dollars resulting from the fact that his neighbors had been tapping into his phone line for their long-distance calls. He’d left in defeat but also in a kind of triumph, because his art career was taking off thanks to the passionate support of Hudson, whose gallery, Feature Inc.—then on Greene Street, soon to move to Chelsea—was entering its heyday. Alex’s paintings, meticulous renderings of pixelated or otherwise fragmented images, were each the result of hundreds or even thousands of hours of work, technically precise and meditatively, masochistically obsessive. His source material was imagery that had a “specific emptiness”—travel brochures, postcards, amateur pornography. “Turning [these images] into formal arrangements of color, pattern, and repeated form,” he told Hudson in 1998, “becomes a sublimation, a ritual that allows me to enter their profound vapidity.” The frame of mind needed to make this work seems to have required a big buffer of loneliness, which Alex successfully located in Des Moines. He could stay there and paint, and Hudson would be his lifeline. That was the arrangement.
Alex’s paintings were each the result of hundreds or even thousands of hours of work, technically precise and meditatively, masochistically obsessive.
He regularly sent me mixtapes of rare recordings culled from his enormous vinyl collection and long letters that included his comedic gloss on the latest happenings in Des Moines—“There’s a new titty bar in town in case you were wondering”—and summaries of the local courtroom drama over whether Amish buggies should have to sport traffic signals on their rear bumpers. He sent me photocopies of Art Bell’s After Dark newsletter, which he claimed was his primary news source; pages from a David Shrigley notebook; a letter his mother wrote him when he was a homesick child at summer camp; collages he made me; missing-children flyers that all seemed to resemble Alex, who had a preppy “lost child” look despite his punk-scene credentials; and Polaroids of whatever painting he was working on. He was in New York a lot. He would tell me stories, like the one about the time he encountered a bunch of boxes on Fourteenth Street that contained Screw editor Al Goldstein’s entire collection of memorabilia, which had just been put out on the sidewalk for some mysterious reason. We ran into people he knew everywhere we went. He introduced me to Hudson, and Hudson and I became friends.
Even though I lived in New York and Alex resided in the so-called Corn Belt (a teenage band of his was called Children of the Corn), he was the one exposing me to ideas and people, like fellow Feature artists Huma Bhabha and Jason Fox, who hosted parties where I met a lot of artists and listened to conversations that transitioned from Robert Ryman to Tom of Finland to Hans-Joachim Roedelius, and I didn’t have much to contribute. Instead, I took mental notes. Jason and Huma lived in Little Italy, and it seemed like the San Gennaro festival was in full flare every time I ended up at their house. When I think back on those years, it’s as if Alex and I are endlessly pushing our way in tandem under the colored lights, navigating past drunks and glass displays of fried shapes. Even if I was writing him a letter or updating him over the phone on some evolving situation, it’s us moving in tandem under those lights. Like the year that Brigid Berlin called me regularly at the offices of Grand Street magazine, where I was working, to tell me about her life as a daddy’s girl and then a Warhol Factory girl, and I would summarize what she said and mail it to Alex in an envelope.
Meanwhile, Alex kept on painting. Started layering one fractured image over another, in the spirit of Picabia’s “transparencies.” Grew a mustache so that he could “get some respect,” as he told me, while buying power tools at his local hardware store. Every time he called me he’d make up a story: “This is Larry Finstrom, Finstrom Heating and Cooling: You guys are having a problem with your boiler?” “Is this Dial-A-Poem?” “Yeah, I need a blow-up bouncy house?” Or he’d say his name was Bob and he’d met me at Jumbo’s Clown Room and wanted to know if he could get a private table dance. Once we were on the phone when he got a call on the other line from Hudson, who was at a pay phone outside Alex’s studio in Des Moines. (I took this as a sign of Hudson’s committed eccentricity, showing up, unannounced, in Iowa, for an impromptu studio visit, but Hudson was apparently a follower of an ashram there.)
Feature quieted a bit after Hudson moved from Chelsea to the Lower East Side. Some artists lost confidence and left. Hudson asked his artists to have the patience, stoicism, and commitment to austerity of the anonymous tantra paintings he collected and showed. Alex devotedly complied. Luckily for him, he had a successful side gig touring with Gorilla Biscuits, who sold out shows all over the world. When Hudson died in 2014, Alex considered his lifeline cut. He was not going to do the social labor that many artists regard as part of the job, but he had a few solo exhibitions in Paris and New York, including a miniretrospective at Galerie Richard on Orchard Street last year. And he continued to make incredible work, work that really did require a kind of static life, or so he claimed. I began to collect joke memoir titles that played on the ambivalence and solitude—but also the wry self-deprecation—that I understood as his version of stability:
Table for Two for One: My Story, by Alex Brown Duds and Suds: Clocking Time with Beer and Laundry, by Alex Brown (named after Alex’s preferred Des Moines laundromat, which sold draft beer) Friendly Fire: My Adventures, by Alex Brown Hamburger in Paradise: One Man’s Struggles, by Alex Brown Can a Fella Get a Table Dance: The Diaries of Alex Brown Married but Looking: A Life, by Alex Brown
And so forth. The list goes on, and eventually found its way into my 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers. Fiction is mysterious and can obscure its sources, even from its author, and I didn’t realize until recently how many details, and how much of Alex, ended up in that book.
Over the years, Alex gave me two paintings. One is a pink-and-brown tree squeegeed in white, and it’s as good as any Richter. The other is of the AT&T building on Church Street, a sublime and strange portrait of that concrete fortress that has in it a tinge of irony: It’s a picture of the “communications” building, a structure that is windowless and blank. The painting is in my dining room. I stare into its vertical seams now, looking for cracks in its unyielding facade, and wonder, really for the first time: Where do people go when they vanish from the world? Until Alex died suddenly of an aneurysm in January, I had not felt the need to know.
Rachel Kushner’s most recent novel is The Mars Room (Scribner, 2018). She lives in Los Angeles.