Alfred Leslie: An Interview
An artist of diverse talents and prodigious energy, Alfred Leslie (b. Bronx, N.Y., 1927) was still a teenager when he first began making paintings, sculpture 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 war-time 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 enrolled at 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 the 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 Based on the last act of an unpublished play by Jack Kerouac, it is the quintessential expression of New Cinema and the Beat Generation.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 Alan 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, a 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 text 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, anti-naturalistic 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 lost work. The death of O’Hara, also in 1966, was the central motif of the fictionalized narratives in “The Killing Cycle” (1966 –1981), 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 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. The 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.
Judith Stein: You were 24 years old at the time of your first one-man exhibition. Had I walked into that show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1952, what would I have seen?
Alfred Leslie: A big room with a high ceiling, filled with paintings and collages that for the period were considered enormous. The biggest was The Bed-Sheet Painting, 12 by 16 feet long, on unsized canvas; it had a black, scumbled surface and one leaning, white bar in the lower left corner. I mounted it unstretched on the main wall, starting at the height of the ceiling using nails poking through grommets, purposely letting it sag to emphasize its physical presence.
JS: When Fairfield Porter reviewed the show, he praised your “new directness that makes much vanguard painting seem tight and prim by comparison.” But Manny Farber labeled you a “Bronx cowboy abstractionist" out to shock your audience with an "Oh to hell with it all” attitude. What got his goat?
AL: All of it, but probably what I called a self-portrait riled him the most. It was an 11 by 6-foot abstraction on raw canvas made of black marks made with a brush, a stick, and the earliest felt ink markers. People called it “The Fuck You Painting,” because I had printed the words “Fuck You” in the middle of it, near the few figurative references.
JS: To say “Fuck You” to the world sounds angry to me. Was that your intent?
AL: Subverting expectations was always integral to my work.
JS: What about the collages?
AL: Same thing. The title Christ Dead offended some people because it had nothing to do with Christ but was just pieces of raw canvas with black and white paint marks and pasted newspaper crudely stapled to an exposed common wood frame. When I wanted a dark line, I simply stuck on a piece of black plumber’s tape. The cut edges of the canvas had dangling threads. There were about four similar works, all around 6 by 7 feet in the show. Context is important here: remember, we were still living in Norman Rockwell’s America. “Kikes, niggers and dogs not allowed.”
JS: At this time you were also making drawings of people you knew. How did you reconcile that work with your abstract paintings?
AL: Process is a tool for me, not just an action, I’ve never been ruled by ideology, nor were most of us who showed at Tibor de Nagy Gallery—Larry Rivers, Grace Hartigan, Harry Jackson, Bob Goodnough, Jane Freilicher and Helen Frankenthaler. There was constant talk about the formal, the informal, irony, narrative, content, abstraction, the nonrepresentational, figuration, realism, popular culture, high art—everything was to be reexamined. Among the older painters, a dialogue with Picasso was still consequential, as was being able to draw. Drawing was in its way not only a form of dues-paying, but an acknowledgement that there was an intellectual life active here, a necessary qualification to make an abstraction. Times change. In the ‘80s, during a ‘realist’ panel discussion, I was asked if I could paint an abstraction.
Figuration and narration were then contentious issues for many painters, but these concerns didn’t exist per se in the film, theater, literary or still photography worlds, all of which I was a part of. The virtual banishment of figuration and narrative vocabulary from so many thoughtful artists was one of the legacies of the modernists who handed it over to photography in all its forms. I never accepted this, and considered film and photography to be part of the continuum of painting.
My ongoing work in all those areas exposed the intellectual impoverishment of those conceits, even as I agreed with the doubts of my friends who were forever asking “can we, should we, why?” Those were serious and important questions to counter the potential arrogance of certainty. But they left out the “X” factor of the individual, making it an academic question. The flux of the real world is mostly, after all, fear and uncertainty, tempered by the chance elements of intervention. The dentist is pretty much always going to want a swimming pool. A touch of an enlightened persistence of vision—that was the backstory of that show.
In a way I suppose mastery of the emerging mediums became my struggle.
JS: And you were a generation younger than those painters…
AL: … and I was an autodidact who did not believe in the progression of art. I said as much, early on at The Club. I saw unity and commonalities where they saw intractable singularity. For me, art is not biology, progression is afterthought, what happens is what becomes, history is the unexpected footprint.
JS: In the ‘50s, Frank O’Hara praised you as an artist who did not “flinch at the things that everybody else flinched at.” Was he alluding to the figure?
AL: No. In the ‘50s he would have been referencing my use of orphaned, seemingly insignificant, workaday materials that I regarded as lacking any art-historical associations, materials recently referred to as “un-monumental.” I used plumber’s tape, staples, grommets, nails, house paint –whatever worked—without glorifying them, sans nostalgia. Basically I just said, “Here it is.”
Before I even understood who Brancusi was, I was drawn to his studio practice, his way of seeming to oh so casually just pile things up. My studio floor, the studio walls, the accumulated studio detritus, even more than the streets, seemed to me a kind of raw manuscript. I knew about Schwitters of course, but I was also interested in Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, Laurel and Hardy, and Ma Rainey.
JS: I know that you financed your solo debut at Tibor de Nagy by appearing on the TV program “Strike It Rich.” It was one of the earliest “reality” shows, "where real people tell their own true stories." How in the world did you manage that?
AL: I was living on the Hoboken waterfront opposite the ferry in a block-through double loft, a former flop house with 14 toilets. I was broke, living day to day. John Myers—my dealer at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery—told his artists that for a solo show we each had to come up with $250 to cover printing and mailing costs.
I immediately thought of “Strike It Rich.” It was so preposterous, I thought the producers might go for it. I cut open a brown paper bag, and in pencil wrote “I am a real artist.” I said why I needed the money and suggested they contact John Myers to confirm. I taped up the paper to form an envelope and mailed it. To my satisfaction, they went for the idea.
The day of the live broadcast, I wore my Navy sweater, a black, single-breasted jacket and a pair of striped, formal wedding pants from a local thrift shop. I was planted in the audience as the day’s “randomly picked” participant. One of the questions was to name the kind of hat that a freshman at college might wear. “A beanie!” I answered. I won the money and a colossal package of Tide detergent. When they asked me what I would do with the Tide, I said, “I’m going to eat it for breakfast every day.”
JS: Who knew you were also a performance pioneer! It seems that you could play any hand— abstraction, figuration, film, and text—alone or in combination. You were also working as a sculptor, a part of your practice few are aware of today.
AL: I’ve always made sculpture. For a time [1947-48] I carved Brancusi-like totems from table legs. These segued into papier mâché casts. I'd take a big bunch of chairs, tie them up randomly together to a height of 15 or 16 feet by whatever, wrap the whole in papier mâché, then cut the dry skin into arbitrary segments, Which I rearranged and painted. Some I spray-flocked with velvet. Eventually they looked too polite for me, especially after I found a cache of car mufflers and tail pipes. I didn’t have enough space or money for a welding set-up, so I would tie them together with rope after hammering and reassembling them.
In 1952 and ’53 I began working with plaster. I exhibited two of these sculptures at De Nagy: an 8-foot high crucifix showing Jesus with an erection, and a smaller, wholly abstract plaster that I painted and studded with nails. I revisited the auto-part-welding idea in the summer of ‘56 and suggested to Larry Rivers that we work iron together using his tools. Unfortunately I caught a metal fragment in my eye and lost the moment. In the ‘90s, I made a few drawings with low-relief lead passages and then stopped—my co-op board threatened to evict me because of the smell.
JS: You worked on your earliest sculpture in the context of New York University’s Studio 35. What was that like?
AL: I had enrolled at NYU under the GI Bill. I was able to ghost most of the classes, doing pretty much what I wanted. It was a great situation- a unique moment, a fluke, really. The postwar art department was in flux, uncertain about how to mix high school graduates with the newly demobilized military personnel. Robert Iglehart came on as department chairman, and he in turn hired Tony Smith and Bill Baziotes, both in their mid-30s and not at all academics in outlook—rare baby birds nesting in NYU!
They carved out Studio 35 in the space that was formerly The Subjects of the Artists School, the informal open studio that Barney Newman, Bob Motherwell and David Hare founded in 1948 to further the language and reach of abstraction. Eventually, Tony, Bob Goodnough, a few others and I were the main users. There were no formal shows there, but we usually had our work around during the weekly meetings that were formatted like the ones the Subjects school had had. John Cage gave a one-minute-of-silence talk in front of an open window. But the “silence” became a street opera.
JS: During this time you were also working on films. You’ve mentioned that at one meeting, they screened your collage film Magic Thinking  along with Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart . Can you describe the film for me?
AL: I used clips from black-and-white cartoons, home movies, GI training films, industrial commercials, strip footage, old feature films, 8, 16, 35mm, whatever I found at the Canal Street stores that specialized in bankruptcy and job-lot merchandise. At a camera store on 10th Street I picked up a small hand- cranked 35mm projector. Tom Guarino (my film partner at the time), Dody James and I pulled it all together.
JS: Collaging all those disparate images sounds like an innovative practice.
AL: I never thought I invented that kind of mix. It was the ‘cultural given’ I grew up with, a natural context for my discovery of Ezra Pound and the theater of Erwin Piscator and Brecht.
JS: You worked on another film during the Studio 35 years, Directions: A Walk After the War Games [1946-49].
AL: Directions was a kind of narrative film that juxtaposed a day at war in Europe, say October 7, 1944, with the same day in New York. Tom Guarino, shot the World War II footage when he was in Europe. I worked with a small 16mm Bell and Howell, filming in cafeterias; on the Third Ave El, in trolleys, subways, buses and the Bronx railyards; in the Midtown Theater district and the Yiddish theater district in the Lower East Side.
The painter Peter Kahn wrote music for the film and scored it for about six instruments. I arranged for a group of mostly students to record the music, using borrowed wire recorders to surround the players. But some of the musicians didn’t show, and we ended up recording Peter Kahn playing his score on the piano, with Ed Nylund on the cello. In the end I made a few different versions of the film; one that showed a lot used
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as the soundtrack.
JS: In 1966, a studio fire destroyed nearly all of your work done prior to that year. What was the fate of Directions?
AL: An absurdly tiny fragment survived -- two frames of close-ups: a man with a white Panama hat sitting in the subway, staring angrily at the camera; and a sleeping derelict on the Bowery.
. . .
JS: During the years in which you were a high-profile Abstract Expressionist painter, you returned to photography, which you had first explored as a teenager.
AL: Around 1955, a collector who had made a bundle by buying Polaroid stock at the company’s start-up gave me a Polaroid camera— a small beautiful, bellows camera with a great lens. I began taking police-style mug shots of everybody who came into my studio. They looked great. After I had taken 20 or 30 of them, I realized I had initiated a new body of work. Overall I must have shot hundreds.
JS: Did you “direct” each portrait?
AL: Yes and no. I usually sat people down and told them just to look into the lens. I did one variation though with Sam Francis, who had a droopy handle-bar mustache that he planned to shave off. I took three shots: one with the mustache, one with half and one without. Of all the Polaroids I took, again only two survived the fire—one of Sam sans mustache and one of Al Held.
JS: By the early ‘60s, you no longer painted expressionist abstractions. You began a series of monochromatic figures seen frontally against an unspecified ground. Did your work in film and photography play a part in your shift to realism?
AL: Played a part for sure, but what you call a “shift” was really a synthesis, a turning point in my understanding of my reach. When I started the Polaroids in the mid-‘50s, I decided to let everything act out on me. I let all of my diverse and seemingly irreconcilable sensibilities work in the open, and sometimes against each other, to make their claim on the “who” I was, so that I could see who would win out. It was all process, chronology and a willingness to go with the outcome.
JS: The Ameringer & Yohe retrospective in 2007 allowed me to catch-up with Alfred Leslie, the realist painter.
AL: All but three of the dozens of grisailles I painted before the fire were lost. But luckily a few had been photographed, and their negatives survived. They became the basis for the two, full size (9 x 6 feet) digital print “surrogates” I made for the show. These images printed onto cloth gave a small semblance of the feel and presence of the destroyed work.
JS: One was a self-portrait in a suit and tie from 1964, and the other was Karin Peters [1965-66]. You painted her in one of those fabulous vinyl raincoats that were so much a part of the ‘60s.
AL: Yes. It was a spectacular piece of black and white, flashing with light.
JS: Those early grisailles have a strong sculptural presence.
AL: They were meant to have the feel of polished lead, with great bulk and weight—
structures that would physically crowd the viewer.
JS: Your later figures have a different physicality.
AL: When I painted the ‘90s grisailles, I had in mind—besides a crowding bulk and weight—the kind of light that David Smith trapped with a grinding tool on his polished Cubis. Each time David passed the tool over the surface, he created a different layer of light which both revealed and dissolved the work. A great invention. In my case, while a paint passage was still wet, I passed a dry brush over it in different directions, layering brushwork sans paint to create a concrete light path. It was not an illusion of light, but light itself.
JS: There were some particularly beautiful examples of your post-fire and ‘90s portraits in the Ameringer & Yohe show. You no longer restricted your palette to black, white and grey in the Birth of Venus [1969-70].
AL:Yes, I found a way to retain the psychological and conceptual premises of the grisaille paintings by using a limited or referential palette, where black stood for blues, light red for all reds, and yellow ochre for all yellow, with white keeping its original place in the palette.
JS: Your figures never ingratiate themselves with the viewer. Their flat affect is unnerving, as if they were runway models in an alternative universe. Cindy Creswell , for example, is like a dead body with open eyes.
AL: You could say they're dead, entombed figures. Their unnaturalness is a dialogue with perception.
JS: You offer a conceptual vision of the figure, an assemblage really, that we never could see with our own eyes.
AL: The four horizons were each painted at eye level. You can only see a figure like that with a long lens of a camera brought into a close-up or, if you’re far enough away, through a telescope or binoculars. Then you don’t have to move your head up and down to scan the figure. With the multiple horizons and unjustified light I democratize the body. The person I paint doesn’t exist; the body is a reflection of process and randomness, a composite of sittings. By the time I’m through, the only “there” that’s there is the “there” I have made.
When I began these black-and-while pictures, these grisailles, images mediated through technology ruled. The greater public believed in the camera as an unimpeachable source of “truth” and “facts.” Direct testimony was suspect, and, as a result, perception on the hoof was pretty much devalued. I thought by eliminating all the shibboleths, the sentimentalities and the niceties of art, to focus exclusively on the formal issues of the figure and of painting itself, one could make a picture in the guise of a person that could stand with the best work of the moment, which I saw as primarily abstract.
JS: Characteristically, your art entails frontality and seriality.
AL: Frontality was a major issue in the abstraction of the 20th century. I presented the canvas as a flat plane and painted the figure as if it were a cutout. It exists without a background, on an unmodified field, standing in the space between the picture plane and the viewer.
As I shot my Polaroid “mug shot” series I would tack them chronologically on the wall. Chronology added time to the weight of the visual mass, filled out the narrative structure outside the camera, took ownership of the work back from the machine. I never intended the original grisailles to be seen one at a time. I wanted them double-hung in a grid, so that you walked into an environment of bodies. The only opportunity I have ever had to come near it was two years ago when I was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters—unexpectedly they gave me a wall high and wide enough to make a 10-canvas installation.
JS: In your most recent film, Einstein’s Secret , one segment is adapted from your graphic short novella about your heart attack. These drawings were a revelation to me. But knowing you, I’m sure there must have been precedents for them in your career.
AL: The New York Story was an animated film I started in 1963. That summer I visited LA and brought painter Bill Brice in on the project. We did a series of drawings together that were eventually lost in the fire. But some of the panels I drew when I got back in New York were reproduced in Artforum. It’s crazy how stuff survives: I found some of the original reversal photostats I had sent to the printer in the rubble from the fire.
JS: How did the narrative unfold in The New York Story?
AL: It followed the same course as my recent film The Cedar Bar (2001): artists talking about art, bitching about their personal lives or about the art world. The New York Story began with the image and sound of a dripping faucet dissolving into a man sitting in a window seat of a plane flying from L.A. to New York. He has a monster headache and drifts in and out of sleep. Another scene took you inside the head of an L.A. dealer talking about the art business.
JS: Were there other comic drawings?
AL: In 1964 I did a series of critical commentaries on the contemporary art world for the weekly New York Art Calendar published by Harvey Matusow.
JS: Would you describe these as cartoons?
AL: I pretty much always resist categorization. To me they're line drawings, a form of abstracto-non-naturalismo mark-making that works within a certain structure. When I was a kid, movie theaters were my museums. I liked Krazy Kat, Popeye, Dick Tracy. The graphic style of New York Art Calendar absorbed them all, plus the super-gang of Rubens, Rembrandt, Hogarth, Japanese prints, Matisse, Picasso, etc. . . .
An important precedent for this sort of work is the great Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania, made in 1918— a remarkable animated documentary about a contemporary event of which I think there’s no photographic record. In its own way, it is like Copley’s Watson and the Shark. If animation had not been so much more time-consuming than filming with a camera, there’s a good chance all my film work would have been animated.
JS : I was surprised to learn about your experimentation with another type of motion-based art, namely kinetic art. How did you happen to be in the ground-breaking European exhibition “Art in Motion” ?
AL: Simple. Billy Kluver told Pontus Hulten that I was working on sculptures involving helium-filled balloons. Pontus dug it and put me in the show. I sent him a Duchampian box, with stuff to make the Jolly.
AL: Jolly was the name of a small beach car by Fiat, and the reference just hit me right. The Jolly kit was a small steamer trunk packed with the Jolly elements: a 20- or 30-foot-in-diameter weather balloon, some fifty feet of rope, a Mickey Mouse kiddy wading pool, a brick, 300 red balloons logo imprinted with The Jolly Stockholm 1960 logo in white or yellow, a bunch of installation drawings, and a Jolly Owner’s Manual, a book with drawings and stories, and a thousand copies of the Aero-Neophyte Manifesto.
The museum was to tether the balloon to the brick with the rope. Billy Kluver calculated the amount of helium I would need to lift the balloon and the rope so that the brick would appear to be floating on the water in the pool. If the air in the exhibition space didn't make it move enough, I suggested they use Jolly fans. Also, I didn’t want people to stand still while looking at it, so I proposed Jolly guards who would have Jolly batons to prod viewers to stay in motion.
JS: How mischievous of you.
AL: Never thought of it that way, but for whatever reason the piece didn’t get installed. It was listed in the catalogue, though and Pontus kept the Jolly Owner’s Manual.
JS: You must have been amused when a Newsweek preview quoted from your manifesto: “To move is to LIVE! To STATICIZE is to die. Therefore: the hope of our survival is to wage a never-ending war against STATICISM.”
AL: A friend of mine later pointed out that I had unwittingly paraphrased Heraclitus, who believed that stability is an illusion.
JS: That wasn’t the only time you created a provocation by fabricating the mask of authority. In your 1964 film The Last Clean Shirt, you prominently featured the logo that read “Czé Zléyiuz EDU Filméii” –words you made up and rendered in no known language.
AL: Ha! This very magazine once asked me for a written statement on self-portraiture [see A.i.A., March-April 1966]. I began with a “quote” from Rabelais, citing paragraph and page from a text that never existed.
JS: The pseudo-Rabelaisian prose notwithstanding, your comment, “My heavens, I look like a fiction of myself,” is not a bad way of thinking about self-portraiture, another genre represented in your first one-man show.
AL: I’ve been doing self-portraits ever since I was a teenager.
JS: As a young man you were a gymnast and body builder. What was the attraction?
AL: I liked the discipline of bodybuilding. And being a gymnast—a hand-balancer, specifically— means that you’re able to control your entire body from your hands and wrists. When I see films of people doing that stuff now, I can feel it, recollect the pleasure of that kind of moment. It’s like dancing.
JS: If you don’t mind a personal subject, I want to ask about your severe hearing loss, dating from childhood.
AL: It shaped aspects of my personality. I always found myself functioning in a multilayered way with people, as it was hard to keep on top of most situations. My strategies were to talk preemptively, interrupt, catch up or keep one step ahead.
JS: It must have been a challenge to be on a panel, when you have to sit on stage with people on either side.
AL: It was tough when all the sound was projected out into a dark room, and I couldn’t hear or even see gestures. I remember a panel at Cooper Union that Edwin Denby moderated. I just sat there and didn’t say anything. Finally Edwin called on me.
So I did what I most usually did: stood up, faced the audience and said, “This is all a lot of shit.” Most of the time everybody would laugh, applaud, even cheer. Then I would say whatever I wanted to say.