An artist of diverse talents and prodigious energy, Alfred Leslie (b. Bronx, N.Y., 1927) was still a teenager when he began making paintings, sculptures and films, as well as taking photographs and writing music and short stories. To this day, his practice remains multidisciplinary.
A lively, inquisitive, zoot-suit-wearing high-school student, Leslie made the most of New York City’s wartime cultural riches. He met the German émigré playwright and director Erwin Piscator and his secretary Saul Colin, formerly Luigi Pirandello’s assistant, both then teaching at the New School for Social Research. Colin encouraged Leslie’s youthful enthusiasm for modernist art, literature and theater. A bodybuilder and gymnast, Leslie posed for artist Reginald Marsh and others and modeled for classes at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute. Childhood illness left Leslie with a severe hearing loss, a condition that would be partially alleviated by hearing aids later in life. Following service in the Coast Guard (1945-46), he attended New York University on the GI Bill (1947-49), befriending faculty members William Baziotes and Tony Smith. Via NYU’s Studio 35, a renowned work-and-lecture space (1948-50), Leslie entered an emerging community of avant-garde artists, dancers and thinkers.
He was 24 at the time of his first solo exhibition, at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where he showed Abstract-Expressionist paintings and collages in 1952. Within a decade, Leslie’s participation in the Fifth São Paulo Bienal, and in exhibitions at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, signaled his international success as an abstract painter. In 1957, Leslie began a series of close-up Polaroid headshots of studio visitors, which he termed “mug shots.” These he hung in a grid on his studio wall, emphasizing the abstract possibilities of this most representational of mediums and, not incidentally, providing himself with a bridge from his abstract work to the filmmaking practice that was to occupy him on and off from that time forward, but especially during the next few years.
Pull My Daisy (1959), the film he devised and later co-directed and co-photographed with his then next-door neighbor Robert Frank, has become a cult classic. Based on the last act of an unpublished play by Jack Kerouac, it is a quintessential expression of New Cinema and theBeat Generation. It features Kerouac’s voice-over, as well as the screen debut of French actress Delphine Seyrig, and includes performances by painters Alice Neel and Larry Rivers, poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, musician David Amram and art dealer Richard Bellamy. Leslie made several films in the early ’60s, including animations and the seminal The Last Clean Shirt (1964), a collaboration with the poet Frank O’Hara, his close friend, who wrote the subtitles.
Among the best known of Leslie’s various literary works is The Hasty Papers (1960), a meaty, idiosyncratic collage of multiauthored texts and images in tabloid format on egalitarian newsprint. Not long after its publication, Leslie arrived at an integration of his photography, film and theater work in a series of faux documentary paintings.In 1963 he began a signature sequence of influential grisaille portraits executed in a cool, antinaturalistic but realist style. Conceptually determined yet acutely observed, these unsettling frontal nude and clothed figures shared an identical format: monumental size, composite perspectives and indeterminate lighting. Then, on Oct. 17, 1966, a devastating fire destroyed the contents of his home and studio in Lower Manhattan. Not only did he lose his unpublished writings, film masters and equipment, but also 50 to 60 grisaille paintings and drawings awaiting curatorial review for an upcoming solo show at the Whitney Museum, subsequently canceled.
From then on, Leslie has, in his description, lived “two lives at the same time,” making new work and reconstructing the sequence and essence of the lost work. The death of O’Hara, also in 1966, was the central motif of the fictionalized narratives in “The Killing Cycle” (1966-81), an emotional yet distanced suite of canvases and drawings incorporating landscape, still life and figures. The staging of these works owes as much to the compositions of Caravaggio and David as it does to cinematic artifice. Some were included in a 1976 traveling retrospective of Leslie’s realist paintings organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1981, a nationally touring show, “100 Views Along the Road: The Watercolors of Alfred Leslie,” encompassed an exquisite series of black-and-white landscapes the artist called “notans,” inspired by a cross-country road trip. Allan Stone Gallery mounted “Alfred Leslie, 1951-1962: Expressing the Zeitgeist,” a retrospective of his Abstract-Expressionist work and the early films, in 2004 [see A.i.A, Apr. ’05]. Leslie is represented by Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, which in spring 2007 exhibited a survey of his figurative paintings and drawings from 1964 to 1990, “The Radical Theater of Alfred Leslie.”
This interview was conducted on May 1, June 14, Aug. 2 and Dec. 25, 2007.