New York City
An American artist whose career evolved from abstraction in the 1950s to realistic figurative works, Alfred Leslie is also a photographer, a writer and an award-winning avant-garde filmmaker. Born in New York City in 1927, Leslie was a gymnast and bodybuilder as a youth and posed as a model at the Art Students League and the Pratt Institute. He began filmmaking as a teenager. After Coast Guard service he studied at New York University from 1947 to 1949 while also taking classes at the Art Students League. The influential critic Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) included a work by Leslie in the 1949 “New Talent” exhibition at the Kootz Gallery in New York. That same year Leslie’s film “A Walk after the War Games” was shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The first solo exhibition of his abstract paintings and collages was in 1952 at New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery. His works appeared in museum exhibitions in New York, Pittsburg, Paris, Spoleto, Stockholm and Tokyo during the 1950s, as well as the 1959 São Paulo Bienale. He returned to film at the end of the decade with “Pull My Daisy” in 1959, which Leslie directed and photographed with his neighbor, the photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank (b. 1924). The film is based on a Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) play and narrated by Kerouac. Featuring performances by the poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and the artists Larry Rivers (1923-2002) and Alice Neel (1900-1984), among others, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1966. Leslie published “The Hasty Papers” in 1960, a commentary including works by a variety of artists and writers including Ginsberg, Kerouac and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). His Abstract Expressionist art works were shown in survey exhibitions in museums and galleries in Chicago, Minneapolis, Stockholm and New York City in the early 1960s. In 1962 Leslie’s art moved towards figurative images, such as his two color lithographs in Walasse Ting’s (1929-2010) 1964 book of poetry and lithographs, 1¢ Life. He remained an active filmmaker, with new films completed in 1964 and 1965, both with subtitles by the writer Frank O’Hara (1926-1966). The two sides of his art were exhibited in 1965, when the MoMA included his abstract collages in its “American Collages” show and the Whitney Museum of American Art featured his figurative Grisaille paintings in its “Annual Exhibition.” The Whitney was planning to mount a one-man exhibition of his Grisaille paintings when in 1966 a catastrophic fire destroyed his home and studio in lower Manhattan, a fire that killed twelve firefighters. Leslie lost the works that would have been included in the Whitney show, master prints of his films and his unpublished writings. He later described his subsequent career as living two lives, one creating new work and the other reconstructing the lost work. After having lost everything, he was financially supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (1968) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1969). In 1967 he began working on a set of studies for a group of five paintings and almost a hundred drawings entitled “The Killing Cycle,” inspired by the death of his friend O’Hara, struck by a jeep on a Fire Island beach. He completed the paintings in 1981; they were featured in an exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum in 1991. Leslie moved to Massachusetts in 1971, taught for a year at Amherst, and returned to New York City in 1986. During the 1970s Leslie’s work was included in exhibitions at the MoMA, the Whitney, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and his prints were included in “30 Years of American Printmaking” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. A road trip in 1978 from California to Massachusetts inspired a series of drawings that Leslie turned into one hundred black-and-white watercolors in that appeared in “100 Views Along the Road: The Watercolors of Alfred Leslie,” a traveling exhibition that toured from 1983 to 1985. His works were included in museum exhibitions in New York and Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and the Joseloff Gallery at the University of Hartford held a retrospective exhibition of his works in 1994. The Cedar Bar, a gathering spot for young artists in the 1950s, is featured in Leslie’s 2001 film of the same name. Based on a play he wrote in 1952, lost in the 1966 fire and re-wrote in 1986, it describes a confrontation between the critic Greenberg and artists of the day. Leslie continued to work well into the 21st century; an exhibit featuring digital images he created was held in 2012. Leslie lives in New York City. (TNB 3/2014) Selected bibliography: Jaksic, Georgia and Adrea Siegel, eds. Alfred Leslie, 1951-1962: Expressing the Zeitgeist. New York: Allan Stone Gallery, 2004.