Probably no American artist has had a decade as wildly prolific and tumultuous
as Alfred Leslie’s in the years 1956 to 1966. At the outset of this
amazing run, in the latter fifties, Leslie carried Abstract Expressionism
new heights of graphic vehemence. At the same time, at the behest of what
he later called his “octopussarian impulses,” Leslie began
creative possibilities: writing, photography and, above all, experimental
film. The “Beatnik classic” Pull My Daisy was screened in 1959,
by The Last Clean Shirt (1964) and Alfred Leslie’s Birth of a Nation
Then, to the consternation of his Ab-Ex partisans, Leslie’s paintings
to change. In the early sixties, visitors to his studio were confronted
giant grisaille portraits, often female nudes, standing in stiff, utterly
Beatnik solemnity. Each of his three main bodies of work—the abstract
paintings, the films, the monumental figures—was singular and extreme.
And yet, in an art world notoriously hungry for signature style, Leslie’s
triple resumé made him less, not more visible. Audiences couldn’t
which Leslie was Leslie. And the best opportunity to correct the situation
went up literally in smoke. Late in 1966, as he was preparing for a midcareer
retrospective at the Whitney, a disastrous fire destroyed the contents
of Leslie’s studio. A handful of lost paintings are visible in footage
visiting film crews. The canvases themselves—approximately fifty
them—not to mention drawings, notes, and hours of film, were destroyed.
Whitney show had to be cancelled. Years of work—including
nearly all his strange, Pop-like transitional paintings—was gone.
wasn’t all. That same year, Leslie’s best friend, collaborator,
champion, the poet Frank O’Hara, died in a freak accident. In photographs
from the period, Leslie looks understandably stunned. In the years after
fire, Leslie has continued to make ambitious realist paintings, and flamboyantly
abrasive collage films, most of them marbled with violence, whimsy,
slapstick, and hardcore pornography. Recently, thanks to a couple of
Manhattan galleries, New York audiences have had a chance to look at two
key groups of Leslie’s older paintings. But his full output remains
little known. It includes, for example, a “one-shot” literary
The Hasty Papers (with contributions by Fidel Castro, Jean-Paul Sartre,
John Ashbery, Alice Neel, Alfred Jensen, and others), that is a forerunner
wilfully eclectic enterprises like the one you hold in your hands.
admirers like to point out continuities in his work: collagebased methods,
an appetite for spectacular contrasts, an irrepressible performative energy,
a confrontational temper. At the same time, there is something simply confounding
about the range of Leslie’s achievements.His
octopussarianism remains mysterious. But the mystery, to my eye,
makes Leslie’s work more, not less compelling. Frank Stella’s
paintings are hard to imagine without Leslie’s example. Ditto for
Close’s early grisailles. Leslie’s films (and his early silkscreened
boxes) may have helped catalyze Andy Warhol’s imagination. Of course,
matters of inspiration are notoriously unpindownable. The point is not
prove that all roads lead back to Alfred Leslie. But there’s no doubt
the fifties turned into the sixties, Leslie was the most omnipresent, gregarious,
volatile intellect in New York. He probably still is. On the 40th
anniversary of the Whitney show that didn’t happen, I asked him to
back, and talk about those transitional years.
Alexi Worth: Your movie,
The Cedar Bar, is a kind of talking portrait of the
Abstract Expressionist circle, set in August 1956, in the week after Pollock’s
death. At that time, you were already an established abstract painter,
though not yet thirty years old. How did you see yourself in relation to
that group? Did it matter that you were a generation younger than most
Alfred Leslie: The only one who seemed troubled by the age difference
Rothko. By and large there was a great breadth, a great sense of acceptance
at the Cedar. I remember walking in one time with David Smith, and a few
minutes later Bradley Walker Tomlin came in, and Edwin Dickinson, and
we all sat at the table together. And David said, “Look at the spread
That was beautiful.
AW: It was a pretty competitive, conflict-prone situation,
AL: I never felt any competition with them. They were my friends, the
I saw every night. What passed for conflict was mostly just different
styles of delivery with a bunch of very serious drinkers. Of course, there
were some ideologues at the Cedar. But to me, that always felt antithetical.
My own view of Modernism was that it was an opening up, a looking at
other cultures, an inclusiveness, not a narrowing down. And think about
Kaldis, Resnick, Rothko, Reinhardt, Cage, Steinberg, there’s lots
points of view there.
AW: At that point, you were making very spare gestural
like Six Panel White, and Big Green.
AL: They were the most minimalist of
my pictures. Six Panel White is what
it is: six panels, all off-white. That’s the whole painting, with
three or four
lines drawn across it. Everything brought down to brushstrokes. Those pictures
lacked the physical graces the later paintings had, but I loved them.
Why did the paintings gradually become more “graceful?”
at first the paintings were all made with housepaint. Leonard
Bocour (the paint manufacturer) said, “Give me a collage and I’ll
some oil paint.” I was penniless at the time, so the economics of
unbeatable. I would give him a collage, just a little one, six by six inches,
then go to his factory and get thirty gallons of paint. Like that! I put
in a hand truck, and I trundled them back to my studio. Now that paint,
was real oil paint. It had an ambivalence, and a painterliness to it. The
started becoming more and more voluptuous. My paint surfaces used to
be like a Bronx kitchen cabinet. Now everything came out too fucking beautiful.
Too much pyrotechnics. It was getting worse and worse every day.
Fried wrote a fascinating review of some of these paintings.
He thought you were deliberately overplaying the painterliness—that
were in effect saying, “I know the drips are sentimental, but I have
courage to be really sentimental, see?” Was that how you felt?
Yes. And don’t forget, this was the time when (Ab-Ex) painting
become totally acceptable. The sense of challenge was diminishing. For
me, it was the beginning of the transition. I said to myself, you can be
but a lousy artist. Or you can be an artist, but not be a painter. So I
What am I?
AW: Were you already thinking about writing, about making films?
I made my first collage films in 1949. One of them, Directions: A Walk
After The War Games was screened at MoMA that year. But I decided that,
if I ever was going to mature as an artist, I had to focus on a single
So I paused with that other stuff for a bit. I sold my camera, sold my
typewriter. I thought I needed to have a single public face. When I did
writing and taking photographs again, I kept it private. It became a kind
AW: It seems very fifties: you were a closet multidisciplinarian.
of things were you working on?
AL: I wrote what eventually became The Cedar
Bar and The Chekhov Cha-
Cha. I began the mugshots: Polaroid portraits of pretty much everyone who
came into my studio—there were hundreds of them. I was painting,
silkscreens. Everything was overlapping. And one day I just said to
myself, Go for it. Let the multiple disciplines decide who you are.
ALFRED LESLIE shows his paintings at Ameringer Yohe Gallery in New York
City. Among his many honors he is the recipient of a Gold Medal for Art
life’s work as a painter from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
and a Lifetime Achievement Award for his films from the Chicago Underground
Festival. His latest film-work is The Day Lady Died and 3
Other Poems by Frank
ALEXI WORTH is a New York painter who has written about
art for Artforum, The New Yorker, and other magazines.
He is represented by DC Moore Gallery.
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