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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Alfred Leslie

Nix on Nixon, early 1960s, Alfred Leslie--before the revolution.                                      
Alfred Leslie, Self-portrait, 1967,
After turning 180 degrees.
People Change. Change is undoubtedly the most persistent element in life itself, perhaps the best definition of life itself. We change moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, and especially year by year. Those who refuse to change, or who combat changes going on around them, at the very least will be unhappy. At worst they'll soon be dead. Most people handle change pretty well when it's evolutionary change, gradual in both time and contrast. Even those who claim not to believe in evolution have only to look at their own lives to see it in action. The opposite of evolution--revolution--comes down to just one letter. Whether in the broader, social context, or in one's personal life, combating the first often leads to the second. Evolution usually delays death. Revolution often causes it. What's true of the general population also tends to be true of artists. The artist who doesn't evolve is at risk of producing staid, static, trite, uninteresting, work...indeed, perhaps even losing the designation of artist through a lack of creativity. Very rarely does an artist revolve, that is, change so radically in style, technique, and/or content as to suddenly move ninety to one-eighty degrees in a new direction. However, the American abstract expressionist, Alfred Leslie, in mid-career, did just that.

Torture, Alfred Leslie
The Newspaper, Alfred Leslie
Born in 1927, Alfred Leslie, this past October (2014) celebrated his eighty-seventh birthday. Leslie was born and raised in New York City, just in time to serve in the latter months of WW II as a member of the coast guard. After the war, he studied art at New York University, the Art Students League, and Pratt Institute while serving as a paid model exhibiting his bodybuilding physique for other art students. Leslie's first foray into art was not as a painter but in the area of filmmaking. In 1949, he made a film he called Magic Thinking combining black-and-white cartoons, home movies, GI training films, industrial commercials, strip footage and old feature films. To raise the money needed to exhibit his avant-garde creation, he appeared on the early TV game show, Strike It Rich.

A Death in the Family, Alfred Leslie
The Raising of Lazarus, Alfred Leslie
During the early 1950s, Leslie moved on to painting bed sheets, reassembling parts of junked cars, and such unconventional artist media as plumber's tape, stapes, grommets, nails, and house paint. With the advent of the Polaroid camera in the mid-1950s, Leslie started shooting "mug shot" photos which he assembled in various configurations to create abstract images. From there he ventured into inflatable sculpture and weather balloons. It all sounds somewhat silly to the extreme today, but extreme was the vital element needed to gain recognition in the "anything goes" (or went) art environment of the time. And, in time, Alfred Leslie gained recognition, counted among the second generation of abstract expressionists, touted as the "new" Willem De Kooning (there's no record of what De Kooning thought of such a designation).

The Teepee at Leverett, 1973, Alfred Leslie
Bread and Coffee, 1983, Alfred Leslie
Around 1962, like some other New York School artists, Leslie began seeing the light at the end of the Abstract Expressionism tunnel; and it illuminated a "dead end" sign. Leslie wanted to say more with his art, to speak more distinctly than Abstract Expressionism allowed. It was not an easy decision to move into figural art. Even though such art was becoming the next wave of expression, abandoning Abstract Expressionism meant turning his back on the forward movement of Modern Art--virtually all he was as an artist. This dichotomy did not exist in filmmaking. Leslie longed to incorporate the same freedom of controlled expression in his paintings, no longer relying on the viewer to freely interpret (or misinterpret) his message. He began to work with large-scale charcoal portrait images. Then, in 1966, disaster struck. Nearly all his work was destroyed in a fire. From that point on, Leslie turned to painting, abandoning the monochromatic in favor of subdued color, though sometimes veering toward the monochromatic.

"The Killing Cycle" The Accident, (The Killing of Frank O'Hara),1969-70, Alfred Leslie.
"The Killing Cycle" The Loading Pier,
(The Killing of Frank O'Hara),
1969-70, Alfred Leslie.
Around 1964, during Leslie's filmmaking days as an artist, he collaborated with one of the kingpins of the Abstract Expressionist movement, the writer and poet, Frank O'Hara, who also happened to be a curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The film was titled The Last Clean Shirt. O'Hara wrote the narration. Just two years later, in the early morning hours of July 24, 1966, while walking with friends on Fire Island, O'Hara was hit by a Jeep. He died the next day of a ruptured liver. The tragic episode became the subject for Leslie's most important figural works, "The Killing Cycle." A few years later (1969-70), in a series of nine paintings, Leslie harnessed all his talents and instincts for an in-depth look at not just the Killing of Frank O'Hara, but the meaning of the man's life and death. Although some of the works have a narrative element, some evening featuring a written narration at the bottom, the series does not lend itself to a simple interpretive reading. In some respects, the series is as abstract, in its reasoning if not its images, as anything Alfred Leslie splashed together during his years striving to be more extreme than his extreme New York School colleagues working in the lofts next door.

"The Killing Cycle" The Telephone Call (The Killing of Frank O'Hara),
1960-70, Alfred Leslie.


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