Alfred Leslie

Life Dates:
b. 1927
Artist Biography:
For years Jack Lemon, Director and Master Printer at Landfall Press in Chicago, tried to convince Alfred to come to Landfall and make prints. Alfred was not easily convinced. After many phone calls, he agreed to have Jack bring some aluminum litho plates to his studio outside Boston, show him how to draw on them, then leave. Some time later, the plates arrived along with Alfred for a proofing session at Landfall. Alfred, however, was unhappy with the results. In the studio, he walked up to Jack with a book in his hands. He pointed to a print in the book and asked Jack how the artist made it. Jack said he drew it on a stone. Alfred requested to be set up with a stone positioned vertically like a canvas, up in the third floor studio. So we lugged a stone (about 200 lbs) up two flights of stairs for Alfred to draw on. He loved the difference between drawing on the stone vs. the aluminum plate. This discovery led to the shipping back and forth between Alfred’s studio and Landfall Press a total of 15 stones. This resulted in 3 prints of which Frank Fata is one. The prolific artist Alfred Leslie was born October 29, 1927 in New York City (Hoban 2004). As a small child he enjoyed drawing and making models. At 10 he was developing his own photographs and by 14 he was shooting 16mm films (Hoban 2004). His varied childhood interests continued into his adult career. He started as an abstract expressionist painter but changed direction in the sixties and began painting large realistic figures (the Grisaille portraits) while simultaneously taking photographs, making experimental films and writing (Hoban 2004). Leslie entered the postwar New York art scene working as a model for Hans Hoffman at the Art Student’s League and at Pratt posing for artists Milton Resnick and Reginald Marsh (Hoban 2004). He studied for one year at New York University but for the most part he was self-taught (Tynes 2002). Leslie was “discovered” by Clement Greenberg and Meyer Shapiro and at 23 he was considered an up and coming abstract expressionist (Tynes 2002). He frequented the Cedar Bar with fellow artists Smith, Kaldis, Resnick, Rothko, Pollock, and de Kooning (Worth 2010). In 2002 his film about this time, The Cedar Bar, was screened at the 9th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival where he also received a lifetime achievement award (Tynes 2002). Leslie talks about the post war era saying “ We thought we were at a time when an art was dawning that responded to political events and to the issues that people live with but not in the way it was done before” (Tynes 2002). He (and his contemporaries) felt that realism was “out of touch with reality.” They grappled with how to paint pictures with the despair experienced when one was faced with the horror of concentration camps or the aftermath of Hiroshima (Tynes 2002). Realism would have would have trivialized those deaths but he says, “you could make pictures that were non-narrative and filled with content” (Tynes 2002). He continues saying that many of the older painters at the Cedar felt that “mark-making and the absence of marks and elements of color could lead to a deeper truth” (Tynes 2002). In 1949 Alfred Leslie’s film (co-directed by Thomas Guarino) Directives: A Walk After the War Games screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Worth 2010). It went very well but caused an internal struggle. Leslie decided he needed one public voice (painting) and to do everything else (writing, film, photography) privately (Tynes 2002). In order to concentrate on his paintings he sold his typewriter and camera equipment (Tynes 2002). This freed him from distractions and he could always borrow a camera if he wanted to take photographs. This worked for him until someone gave him a Polaroid camera as a gift seven years later. He loved it and began taking “mug-shots” of anyone who entered his studio (Tynes 2002). The gift caused another internal struggle. He asked himself if he was an artist (Tynes 2002). He told himself “you can be a painter but not necessarily an artist, just as you can be an artist but not necessarily be a painter” (Tynes 2002). He decided to pursue all of his interests even if it made people angry (Tynes 2002). He began working on the film Pull My Daisy with Robert Frank in 1959 (Hoban 2004). The film, narrated by Jack Kerouac, featured Kerouac’s fellow beat writers Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Neel and Larry Rivers among others (Tynes 2002). He simultaneously published The Hasty Papers containing contributions from Fidel Castro, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Ashbery, Alice Neel and Alfred Jensen (Worth 2010). As the sixties progressed Leslie continued to make films. He collaborated with his friend Frank O’Hara on The Last Clean Shirt and Birth of a Nation 1965 (Hoban 2004). The sixties also marked the transition of his painting style. It may have started with a change in paint. Leslie talks about how his first paintings were done with house paint. He then met Leonard Bocour (the paint manufacturer). They struck a deal where Bocour would give Leslie oil paint in exchange for small collages (Worth 2010). He says his paintings “became more and more voluptuous. My paint surfaces used to be like a Bronx kitchen cabinet. Now everything came out too beautiful,” he adds “it was getting worse and worse every day” (Worth 2010). Abstract expressionism was also widely accepted by this time. He felt it was becoming less challenging (Worth 2010). While working on his films he began the Grisailles (large realistic portraits). He says “ the formal elements in these paintings are highly conceptual and related to my films” (Tynes 2002). These paintings inspired Chuck Close and Peter Weiss (Tynes 2002). In 1966, as he was preparing for a major retrospective of his work at the Whitney, his studio burned to the ground killing 12 fire fighters and destroying all but three of the Grisailles, his films and original manuscripts (Hoban 2004). His friend and collaborator Frank O’Hara died in a car accident the same year (Hoban 2004). He discontinued the Grisailles and started a new series based on O’Hara’s death called The Killing Cycle (Hoban 2004). These large cinematic figures are more colorful and stylistically reflect the work of Caravaggio. The series consist of 100 meticulous studies produced from 1967 to 1981 (Hoban 2004). From 1978 to 1983 he created a book from a series of watercolors he produced documenting a road trip called 120 Views Along the Road (Hoban 2004). As of 2004 Alfred Leslie was still working and was creating a new film titled Chekov Cha-Cha (Hoban 2004). References Hoban, Phoebe. 2004. “The Alfred Leslie School of Everything.” The New York Times, November 21, 2004. Accessed April 5, 2013. Tynes, Teri.2002. “Multiplying Perspectives: Alfred Leslie and The Cedar Bar.” Art Papers, July/August 2002. Accessed April 9, 2013. Worth, Alexi.2010. “Octopussarianism: Ten Alfred Leslie Years.” The Sienese Shredder #2. Accessed April 9, 2013. octopussarinism_aen_alfred_leslie_years.html.

Related object

Frank Fata