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Alex Israel in Los Angeles.

Alex Israel in Los Angeles.

INTERVIEW BY SHARON JOHNSTON AND MARK LEE    |    PORTRAIT BY PETER BOHLER

At 33, Alex Israel has quickly become a fixture in the art scene of Los Angeles, where he was born and raised, but also globally. As the city’s cultural profile has risen, so has Israel’s. The two have largely if unintentionally grown in tandem. His works have been added to the permanent collections of institutions including the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in the Netherlands, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and the Centre  ompidou in Paris, as well as the private collections of industrialist Peter Brant, LVMH executive Delphine Arnault, and Ivanka Trump.

What makes Israel’s paintings, sculptures, and videos stand out is that they capture Hollywood and celebrity culture in a playful, refreshingly subtle way. Through his art fantasy and reality merge into a timeless netherworld, a place that’s both fresh in sensibility yet rooted in history. His work, in other words, is very L.A. Unlike many artists, who describe what they do as a “practice,” Israel prefers the term “brand.” This approach manifests itself most obviously in his role as the founder and president of the sunglasses company Freeway Eyewear, which he launched in 2010 shortly before receiving an MFA from the University of Southern California (he graduated with a B.A. from Yale in 2003). He’ll be the first to tell you, though, that the sunglasses are not artworks. His art is a separate thing entirely. The name of his company, however, reflects an unavoidable aspect of L.A. life that’s echoed in his art: driving on the freeway. The name also references the free way so many Angelinos, Israel included, go about their daily lives. The culture of the city isn’t necessarily laissez-faire, but it’s certainly not uptight or hard charging, either. It is most definitely not New York. Somehow, there’s efficiency within L.A.’s relaxed pace. Through vivid use of color and eccentric references, Israel explores many of the city’s inner workings in his art, which can be viewed in the exhibition “Sightings” at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas (through Jan. 31) and at a site-specific intervention at the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino, California, opening on Dec. 12 and on view through July 11. (His work also showed earlier this year at the Almine Rech Gallery in Paris.) Another L.A. entity on the rise, the architects Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee of the firm Johnston Marklee, recently spoke with Israel for this issue. The firm—which designed the Maison Martin Margiela store in Beverley Hills and is at work on the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston—is collaborating with Israel on the design of his new L.A. studio. Here, the three discuss the specialness of L.A., and how it continues to influence their various projects.

Mark Lee: Alex, we’ve known each other for a long time, but this is the first time we’ve gotten to sit together properly and talk about you and your work. Why don’t we start talking about Los Angeles? The city is somehow intrinsic in your work. You were born and raised here.

Alex Israel: Yeah, I was born and raised here. What about you?

Sharon Johnston: I was born here. I grew up in Malibu. I think my L.A. life as a child was probably the inverse of the typical L.A. experience: the beach, no Hollywood.

Lee: I was actually born and raised in Hong Kong, but moved here in 1983 and stayed. Technically, Sharon and I have been in L.A. for just as long, although I came with a lot of baggage in my head already. [Laughs]

Israel: I’ve been here one year longer than you, Mark. [Laughs] I was born in 1982 at the UCLA medical center in Westwood, and I grew up in Westwood.

Lee: You’ve been in L.A. pretty much your entire life, except for your time at Yale, right? Afterward, you came back and worked with the artist Jason Rhoades. 

Israel: I went to Yale, came back, and was working at MOCA as an intern. I was part-time at MOCA and then also part-time at Blum & Poe [gallery] for about a year. Then I moved to New York to work at Sotheby’s in the contemporary art department. I lasted there for about three months. It wasn’t for me. [Laughs] Then I moved back to L.A. So I lived in New York for about six months—I moved there for that job, and then I moved back. I’ve been in L.A. ever since.

Lee: After you moved back, you studied at the University of Southern California, correct?

Israel: Yeah, I started working for Jason after I moved back. I worked with Jason on the “Black Pussy” project in L.A. Then I worked for Hauser & Wirth, one of the two galleries that represents Jason’s estate, and while I was working there, I mustered the courage to apply to graduate school and ended up going to USC.

Lee: Did being away from Los Angeles—being at Yale, being in New York—give you a different perspective of Los Angeles that you didn’t see when you were growing up here?

Israel: Absolutely. Moving away gave me literal distance from the city and that really helped me to see it. When I was away at Yale, I got really homesick. All of the work I was making as an undergraduate art major was about missing Los Angeles, wanting to be home. Removing myself from the city, I learned not to take it for granted—and I began to really appreciate its magic.

Johnston: I’m curious about your experience at Yale. Were there seminal people at Yale or USC who were important in helping you crystallize things? You talk a lot about how your vision of L.A. was formed when you were a young person.

Israel: I had amazing professors at Yale. One of the most inspiring, formative classes I took was a class on modern architecture that Vincent Scully taught. It was really interesting for me because we went through the history of modern architecture, and at the very end of the semester we arrived in Los Angeles. That was how it ended. I thought, “Well, wow, that’s an amazing thing. Here we are now, at the end of this history, and we’ve ended up in L.A.” So L.A. became the starting point. It was given the torch, and now was its time to run. Seeing this firsthand in this class, understanding it, that was very inspiring.

Lee: There’s a John Baldessari quote in which he said he loves L.A. because no one really cares about Warhol in L.A. I think this points to L.A. being its own element, that you have a certain type of freedom here.

To read the full interview with Alex Israel, buy the December/January issue of Surface here.