Skip to main content

A Conversation with Alfred Leslie on "The Lives of Some Women"

"I enter everything through process. Process unlocks what I know and what I don't know,” Alfred Leslie tells me, in his wise fashion. As we sat in comfortable chairs in a cool corner of Janet Borden's airy sixth floor Soho gallery on a recent hot day, the artist shared his thoughts on his new work. Off in the galleries near us, eleven large group portraits of women, all depicting brothel workers by the look of their various stages of dress and undress, hung on the walls. While startling at first sight, much like the startled look on many of the subjects’ faces, these portraits soon give way to many curiosities about how the artist made them. Renaissance portraiture collides with collage, and an illusion of realism is immediately undermined by the modes of digital production. Works painted on computer and then printed as photographs, they are marvels of the digital frontier. Leave it to Leslie, now 85, to once again raise the bar on a new hybrid artistic medium.

Over a long career, much longer now than many of his departed peers from the art world of postwar New York, Alfred Leslie has created a challenging and bold body of artwork. His accomplishments would surely challenge any compiler of his catalogue raisonné. Such a compilation would have to include a sweep of masterful paintings in abstract expressionism, a stellar example of which we saw at MoMA's Abstract Expressionism exhibit last year, the cinematic landmark of Pull My Daisy and other films, and his monumental figurative work, including the Grisailles. A devastating fire in October of 1966 destroyed a lot of important work. Reclaiming those works, whether through films, archive rebuilding, or recreating the images themselves, is equally an important part of his story.

Alfred Leslie's novel approach and versatility, especially his command of multiple media, has tended to baffle many established art critics and art historians, bent on facile characterizations. Yet Leslie has time and again relied on a process that pleases himself as an artist. "I do the best to satisfy myself and then let go," he said. Beyond the important content at the moment and the process, a look at his new works displays several continuities that tie together much of his work. While the body of work on display at Janet Borden advances his expanded inquiry into form and content with a hybrid form of computer painting rather than with a physical paintbrush on an oversized stretched canvas, these figures are unmistakably "paintings" by Alfred Leslie. Furthermore, the works embody references to his series of the twenty-five paintings of women he made from 1968 to 1986, also titled "The Lives of Some Women." 

After the fertile period of the late 1950s to early 1960s, a time when "I broke through some self-imposed restrictions,” Leslie reflected, he began pursuing an interest in unconventional approaches to figure painting. We talked about "The Killing Cycle," a series of narrative paintings he made in the late 1960s and 1970s. Based on the almost incomprehensible accident that killed his friend Frank O’Hara on a beach at Fire Island, the paintings dramatize, in a way reminiscent of Caravaggio's pictorial Baroque dramas, the specific episodes of the tragic events. Yet, Leslie purposefully upended the realism of the pictures in favor of what he describes as "a naturalist realist picture but totally unnatural." He created the unnatural aspects by deliberately contradicting a realistic illustration of muscle tensions in the figures, among other techniques. He explained,  "The unnatural quality served to distance the viewer from any candy-box sentimentality about what was happening, about death. And the beach, the horizon, the ocean stands for us as a great place of mystery." Made at the time of the Vietnam War, Leslie reflected on the context of this work. "All image making is essentially bearing witness," he said.

The Lives of Some Women (Two)

© Alfred Leslie 
60 x 50 inches C Print 
The digital works currently on exhibition have a fairly recent genesis. Leslie first drew one of the faces in what would become a multiple figure composition of fifteen women. He said, "Something struck in terms of content." He printed it out and pinned it on the wall. He said that friends who saw the small image said that it reminded them of a Renaissance painting. He said he thought at the time, "I don't know what I've done." The images of women in "The Lives of Some Women" similarly reflect this unnatural realism, pictures where light sources are unjustified. Beyond this approach, the images reflect on the layering, semi-erasures and collage-making properties of digital image making. He compared his practice of using multiple parts of an image to the sculptor Rodin's practice of reconfiguring his inventory of body parts. "Once I created an eye I liked, a small alteration was all that was needed to use it again. Memory is basic to the reality of digital files  - alter it and reuse it - musical notation through pixels. Pixel scores are what I think these pictures are and what I call them.”

Never intending to make photographic works, Leslie pondered the question, "Where does it go from the screen? I had to show pixel depth. How do you create color depth?" He had devised a layering of color, much in the manner of Peter Paul Rubens. "Those elements exist in the pixel elements on screen," he said. The only way that the images could properly be realized were by professional printers, and so Leslie turned to Griffin Editions, specialists in fine art photographic printing.

The ultimate unifying factor with these works is the demonstrable proof of years of experience and skill in the craft in painting. Few people other than Leslie would have the understanding of painting to pull off the tones of washes, layering, and undertones that uncannily present themselves in this novel medium. "I reach for content but it's only as I apply the formal structure, that everything falls into place...every time."

The exhibition "The Lives of Some Women" by Alfred Leslie at Janet Borden, Inc., 560 Broadway, has been extended through July 27, 2012. See gallery website for more information. 

Website for Alfred Leslie: www.alfredleslie.com.

Personal note: I have known Alfred Leslie for over ten years, and he has been a constant source of inspiration in my life and work. Ten years ago, I conducted a full-length interview with him for Art Papers magazine. See "Multiplying Perspectives: Alfred Leslie and The Cedar Bar " (July/August 2002). Five years ago this summer, he encouraged me to start putting my journal of walking notes and pictures on the Internet.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Thanks for providing the background and context for this unexpected body of new work from one of our modern masters.
Judith

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

14 Useful Mobile Apps for Walking New York City

Texting and walking at the same time is wrong. Talking on the phone while strolling down the street is wrong. Leaving the sidewalk to stop and consult the information on a cellphone, preferably while alone, is OK. What's on Walking Off the Big Apple's iPhone: A List Walkmeter GPS Walking Stopwatch for Fitness and Weight Loss . While out walking, Walkmeter tracks routes, time, speed, and elevation. This is an excellent app for recording improvised or impromptu strolls, especially with many unplanned detours. The GPS function maps out the actual route. The app keeps a running tally of calories burned while walking, useful for weight loss goals. Another welcome feature is the ability to switch over to other modes of activity, including cycling. An indispensable app for city walkers. $4.99  New York City Compass , designed by Francesco Bertelli, is an elegant compass calibrated for Manhattan, with indications for Uptown, East Side, Downtown, and West Side. While facing a cert

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

Visiting New York on a Monday

Mondays are OK. Let's have a look at some of the museums open Mondays - • American Museum of Natural History • Jewish Museum • Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) • National Museum of the American Indian • Neue Galerie • Guggenheim Museum • South Street Seaport Museum Any of these museums could be paired with a nearby restaurant or bar, making a complete full afternoon or day in New York. Monday is especially good for a museum visit, because the crowds tend to be thinner, and restaurants, too, tend to be less busy than on a weekend. A fun museum and bistro walk on the Upper West Side would be a combination of the American Museum of Natural History and the nearby Cafe Lalo on W. 83rd St. I also would suggest a pairing of the Neue Galerie with a nearby cafe, but the two cafes inside the musuem are so good, why go anywhere else? Image above: The Guggenheim on left and Beaux-Arts townhouse on right. View from E. 88th St. by Walking Off the Big Apple.

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli

Edward Steichen and the Flatiron Building

March 27 is the birthday of photographer Edward Steichen (March 27, 1879 - March 25, 1973), so let's use the fact as an excuse to revel in his photograph of the Flatiron Building. Edward Steichen, The Flatiron, 1904. The Flatiron , or Fuller Building as it was known originally, at 175 Fifth Avenue sits on a triangular block formed by Fifth Avenue, Broadway and East 22nd Street. The Renaissance-style building, completed in 1902, tapers at 23rd Street, often creating a wind tunnel that lifts skirts and such. Hence, the phrase - "23 skidoo," as policemen were said to announce to those watching the skirt lifting. Daniel Burnham designed the building using a novel method of skeleton steel construction. Alfred Stieglitz. Flatiron Building, 1903 About the Steichen photograph: • Steichen, trained as a painter, was influential in establishing photography as a fine art. • Steichen photographed the Flatiron Building when it was considered novel. • He photographed