“To me you bulldoze your way into your unique given to see if there is a there there that you can live with and then make something out of.”
The polymath New York artist Alfred Leslie’s life has been a search to make works of art that have meaning that extends beyond the zeitgeist of the day. Working with painting in both the abstract and realist genres, filmmaking, sculpture, digital imagery and writing he considers himself as an autodidactic despite having studied at New York University (NYU) during the tail end of the 1940’s
As he told Art in America’s Judith Stein “I 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.”
But even then in his early twenties Leslie was mixing up his artistic disciplines working on painting, sculpture and avant-garde films.
As he explained to the Brooklyn Rail’s Phong Bui a few weeks ago “It was simply a question of staying away from the easy path and to trying to find something consequential in what you were making. Plus, I think of myself as self-taught. My kind of basic skills were pretty much in place when I was a child. I could draw, make films, and act. I won prizes and art scholarships and I was a gymnast, but none of it ever seemed to me to be a straight arrow to the truth. (Whatever that means.) Thinking on it now I seem always to be looking for something more consequential but could never figure out what it was.”
When he was 24 Leslie had his first solo exhibition in New York showing his abstract expressionist works and within a decade his work was gaining exposure worldwide. Then in 1962 he changed course and started painting in a realist figurative mode.
About which he has said “there was a point at which I realized that if my work was to develop and evolve, and if I was to mature as an artist, these figurative ideas could not be ignored, even though following them could seem to imply that I would be turning my back on the twentieth century, turning my back on my abstract achievement.”
The catalyst for this change was primarily his involvement with film and photography.
“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 from the vocabulary of so many thoughtful artists was one of the legacies of the modernists, who handed them over to photography in all its forms. I never accepted this, and considered film and photography to be part of the continuum of painting,” he has explained.
About which he has elaborated stating “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.”
Leslie has been afflicted for all his life by an isolating hearing impairment caused by a childhood illness. It is a disability that predominately comes to the fore when invited to participate group panel discussions.
A challenge about which he has said “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 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.”
An exhibition of his early work Alfred Leslie: Abstraction 1951 – 1962 is currently on show at New York’s Allan Stone Projects until the 24th of December.