Born in the Bronx, New York, on October 20, 1927, interdisciplinary artist Alfred Leslie gained notice in the postwar period on the strength of his early abstract paintings, later figurative works, and independent films. An outgoing personality with close ties to Abstract Expressionist artists, Leslie turned his studio into a lively gathering place for New York’s avant-garde.
After serving briefly in the U. S. Coast Guard, Leslie studied art from 1946 to 1947 with Tony Smith and William Baziotes at New York University on the G. I. Bill and, later, with John McPherson at the Art Students League. His early work—forceful abstractions, ranging from large canvases to small collages—soon made his name as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist (1), part of a group of young New York School artists that included Grace Hartigan, Norman Bluhm, Michael Goldberg, Al Held, and Joan Mitchell.
Leslie worked in this vein throughout the 1950s. He participated in the seminal, artist-organized Ninth Street Show in 1951 and had his first solo exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in 1952, followed by additional shows there in 1953, 1954, and 1957. In 1959, he was included in the 16 Americans show at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1952, reviewing that first exhibition at Tibor de Nagy for Art News, Fairfield Porter admired Leslie’s “fresh, romantic, reckless expressionism – romantic because his paintings seem violently revealed … a case could be made for these paintings as being ‘a return to nature’ in the sense of a new directness that makes much vanguard painting seem tight and prim by comparison.” (2)
In recent years, Leslie’s Abstract Expressionist work has been the object of renewed appreciation, with the shows Action/Precision: The New Direction in New York, 1955–1960, organized by the Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1985, and Alfred Leslie 1951–1962: Expressing the Zeitgeist at Allan Stone Gallery in 2004.
Leslie shifted to a large-scale figurative style by the end of 1962. His new work, a series of monumental, hyper-realist portraits in grisaille, marked Leslie’s reaction to the broadening mainstream acceptance of Abstract Expressionism. In a 1985 interview with Stephen Westfall in Art in America, Leslie remarked “The adversarial position of 20th-century painting, which was what so attracted me in 1946, seemed to have disappeared by 1960. And it seemed to me that within the framework of figuration there was a way to renew painting.” (3) Leslie sought not only to breathe new life into a neglected,
discredited genre but to, in his words, “restore the practice of painting, which I felt was slipping away.” (4)
Since the late 1940s, in tandem with his ambitious and versatile work as a painter, Alfred Leslie has also earned a reputation as a filmmaker. His third film, Directions: A Walk after the War Game, was screened at the Museum of Modern Art around the same time that Leslie was breaking out as a New York School painter. In 1958, Leslie collaborated with photographer Robert Frank on the beatnik classic Pull My Daisy, narrated by Jack Kerouac and featuring Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Neel, and Larry Rivers, among many others.
In 1966, just before a planned retrospective at the Whitney Museum, a studio fire upended Leslie’s life and artistic practice by destroying everything from canvases to film footage for works in progress. In the aftermath, Leslie decided to focus on exclusively on painting. He did not complete another film until The Cedar Bar (2002), an exploration of the heated discussions between artists and critic Clement Greenberg that took place in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Also in 1966, poet Frank O’Hara, Leslie’s close friend and collaborator, died in a car accident. The loss inspired The Killing Cycle, a series of five major paintings in the manner of Caravaggio and hundreds of studies created between 1967 and 1981.
Leslie’s work was the subject of a traveling retrospective organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1976. A series of monochromatic landscapes, 100 Views along the Road: The Watercolors of Alfred Leslie, toured nationally in 1986. Now in his eighties, Leslie continues to live and work in New York City.
1. Leslie did not like the phrase “second generation Abstract Expressionism,” preferring instead Clement Greenberg’s term, “painterly abstraction.” Stephen Westfall, “Then and Now: Six of the New York School Look Back” Art in America (June 1985), p. 113.
2. Fairfield Porter, “Alfred Leslie” Art News, 1952.
3. Westfall, p. 112–113.
4. Westfall, p. 113.
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