John Haber
in New York City

Alfred Leslie: 1951–1962

People remember Alfred Leslie as the guy who started as an abstract painter. Well, hey, he really was an abstract painter. And it was not a pretty sight—which is exactly why a show of his early work is so impressive.

But is it Abstract Expressionism—and is it Leslie? People remember him as a portrait painter, a hyperrealist, a Pop artist, or maybe a confrontationist, depending on how one deals with his later direction. Yet Allan Stone calls his early years "Expressing the Zeitgeist," whatever that means. Alfred Leslie's Olive Mark (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1959)

And in fact the Upper East Side gallery purports to offer a clue. Along with paintings and works on paper from the late 1950s, it includes daily screenings of Leslie's first two films. One dates from 1959 and one from 1964, slightly and tellingly transgressing the show's limits.

Is that an awful lot of attention to the periphery of a painter's career? That should get one thinking about the very notion of the peripheral, in context of an artist too easily relegated to the sidelines. In the gap between the work that is there and the work that is not, one has a provocative moment in a career and in American art.

Forbidden territory

Alfred Leslie builds these compositions largely on broad vertical and horizontal bars. If that makes one think of Willem de Kooning before Alzheimer's and Franz Kline, fine. He knew them well, but do not expect their sudden passages into depth or their hints of the sublime. Leslie has a particular fondness for de Kooning's green, but the thick brushstrokes cling to the surface, as if barring one's way into the light. Even when he introduces a sky blue, it becomes the topmost layer, like a coarse blanket.

The apparent objects cover the canvas, but without apparent symmetry, nothing to evoke Abstract Expressionism with its shallow space and freedom of movement. They do not push one back to contemplate their classicism and the place of abstract art in the museum. They do not allow the eye to penetrate within.

Associations with abstract paintings are always treacherous, which perhaps explains why they come with the game. However, the slightly arched horizontals above the verticals make me think of colonnade buildings and the underside of highways. For de Kooning, landscape often suggests a passage amid the wreckage, a glimpse of air and sea. Here it seems forbidden territory, and the illusion dissolves up close anyway.

Leslie does drip—or at least spatter—but not with the delicacy and architectonic function of threads of paint in Jackson Pollock or Joan Mitchell. Spatter here seems to have exploded from the scene of a crime, and it adds yet another layer, blatantly flung against the surface. In proper formalist manner, no doubt, the mess declares a painting's objecthood. No doubt, too, it signifies the unrehearsed process of its making. Mostly, however, it is just in your face. It would seem like a final burst of anger were the artist not so plainly having a good time.

What people remember tells a story. It could be the one about second-generation Abstract Expressionism—back when only change could fulfill the promise of the avant-garde. It could be the one about the artist, who gave it all up—back when only formalism could fulfill the same promise.

And that, too, is fine. It may sound illogical to have a second generation begin just when the first found its stride, but that testifies to abstraction's generative power. Besides, in some warm corner of the imagination, the first years of postwar American art probably do evoke both childhood and sex.

Moving on

It is fine, too, because Leslie did move on. Perhaps the art scene's shock and sense of betrayal explains why he has had to live with another label, the "minor" Pop artist.

Besides, Mitchell or Michael Goldberg has survived the second-generation label, and Leslie indeed was part of a scene. Think of that first movie, a legendary 1959 collaboration with Robert Frank. Leslie also created an artist's book with Frank O'Hara, while Mitchell was working with John Ashbery and Grace Hartigan with James Schuyler. I only wish I could have seen more than their covers, partly hidden in a display case.

What, then, did Leslie leave behind? Those paintings plow right into the style expected of them, even while reveling in it. Maybe that was the zeitgeist. Take a look at the two movies.

Both have a single voice. In one, it is the voice of a narrator, like a long story passed on from one generation to the next. In the second, it is the babble of an incomprehensible language, from a woman caught in traffic on the Bowery. In both, the soundtrack moves from a hymn to popular music. However, the first ends with white men playing jazz on the edge of sleep, the second with the electric growl of a man down to sharing his last clean shirt with his brother Bill.

Both stick to black and white, and both end in black. In one, it is the black and white of a home movie, filmed in Leslie's downtown studio. It is also the simplicity of early underground movies, with their attention to what the slick eye of Hollywood—or of oil paint—can so easily overlook. In the second, it is the black and white of a new European cinema, but with a nasty American twist. It is also the black and white of its only two characters, a black man and a white woman, just when civil rights were definitely on the agenda. Then, too, it is the eerie black and white that Leslie settles on in his paintings when he abandons abstraction.

The first, Pull My Daisy, owes its voice-over narration by Jack Kerouac, who also wrote it. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso play themselves—or at least they play poets named Allen and Gregory. This crowd lived fast. The poets even share a joint, a good fifteen years before I could have recognized one. All that cannot get, however, at the short film's sweet exuberance. It could belong to a more innocent time and place.

A day in the life

It starts with a child leaving for school, and it ends with his going to bed. His mother is beautiful and young. Delphine Syrig, the only professional actor here, has her first film role, well before such serious, alienated stuff as Last Year at Marienbad.

The poets come over and talk about making poetry. Ginsberg looks slim and dark haired, not the Old Testament prophet of 1960s' upheaval. "The bishop" arrives, too, and the poets come to him with an eagerness more blissful than mere respect could ever be. They approach him like a Zen master, and perhaps he is.

Is this really heaven, they ask, here on Fourth Avenue, and people just never notice. He agrees, and they press him further. Is baseball holy? Is the flag holy? They may seem flippant, childish, and just plain stoned, but without a trace of irony, not the least mockery of the icons of America. This is a fresh appreciation of a still new and already old world.

The husband comes home, a nice working stiff with spectacles but with the casual allure of downtown himself, for Larry Rivers plays him. The bishop's mother drops in and sits down at the organ, very matronly indeed, but it is Alice Neel, the painter. She begins her hymn, which in a moment transforms into a jam. David Amram, who wrote the music, picks up an instrument, and Rivers joins on sax. I had forgotten that the painter played, but he did.

The noise wakes the boy. They welcome him, they give him a chance to play—or at least to play at—the tuba, and he off he goes again to bed. The mother loses patience at last, and poets and musicians go off to share their enthusiasm with the night. The line between the rhythms of the day and the rhythms of creation has effaced itself long ago. It has effaced itself with the line between a hymn and a riff, between a budding artist and a struggling family, between a tenement and a studio, between a novelist's script and poem, between the flag and a koan, and between the daisy and the pull.

Pull My Daisy has an undercurrent of humor and disturbance that art cannot resolve. The hymns of Protestant America cannot last, and the bishop has quite another church. The apartment looks way too small for a family, much less a painter, the sink old and ridden with roaches. The boy stays up past his bedtime, and the mother feels angry and abandoned. Yet the film holds out that one great chance—that disturbance is vital. Nothing else can carry over the old, down to the roaches, into a new day.

Disconnections and solid bars

"Sexual intercourse," Philip Larkin wrote in a quieter country, "began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me)." It is also the year after the paintings at Allan Stone. Like Larkin, I would have seemed far too repressed for the likes of these men. Perhaps Leslie had to move on.

Critics have compared his first film to the new American painting, so urban, untraditional, and without the need of European Modernism. But it also testifies to the changes going on within the shock of the new. Both painters caught on screen, Rivers and Neel, have already moved on from abstraction, as soon would Leslie. For now, they can share a moment between ages, when the transgressors can cross America and live in the present.

In short, they have a lot in common with those early abstract paintings. The story of a second generation, like most stories, has a moral—a vain attempt to live up to the recent past or a betrayal of it. Maybe or maybe not. Disconnections are interesting, but they do not encompass the whole story behind real transformations.

Do the heavy bars make one think of collage and, by extension, Pop Art? Do the raunchy colors recall Robert Rauschenberg as much as Kline? The show does indeed display works on paper, with the bars as colored strips. Does the opacity of the top layers or the balance of confrontation and anger make one think of Pop Art, too? James Rosenquist, after all, named his most famous painting after a fighter plane.

They make me want to see in depth Leslie's portraits, the nudes pressed front and center against the picture plane. The surreal black and white, almost like a photographic negative, helps give them both authority and the mark of their own absence. They dare one to desire them, and they dare one not to. They defy Larkin's British-educated "shame that started at sixteen / And spread to everything."

Leslie had to go through plenty of changes in a short time regardless. O'Hara, who also wrote the dialogue for his second film, died in an accident in 1966. Leslie lost much of his work, including an early version of his third film, in a studio fire that same year. The Cedar Bar did not reach a New York public until Tribeca's film festival in 2003. I can only imagine what all that meant to him, and I cannot really remember that moment, in Larkin's words again, "Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first LP." However, Leslie's second film, from 1964, holds out a fascinating peek at the changing balance of his art.

Another ten minutes, another hymn

The Last Clean Shirt does begin with another hymn, and this time without a trace of communion. The operatic soprano commands one to choose sides in a higher moral cause. And this film has chosen sides, only definitely not hers.

It is the side of tall building by the side of a cavernous, tough city street. It is the back side of a convertible, parked there with its top down, ready to roll. The camera parks there, too, facing forward through the windshield, without a single turn in the course of the film beyond the turn of the wheel. The content of the frame promises to break all the rules, but the scene itself refuses the spontaneity of the poet. This is, after all, the year after 1963.

A young woman, as fashionably sexy as the car or a Tom Wesselmann nude, gets into the passenger seat and waves to the clean-cut black man taking the driver's side. Surely she enters first only because he held the door for her, but she acts as if she had not seen him for weeks. Her passion appears foolish and extravagant, and it continues that way without a let-up. She gestures and talks for ten minutes straight as he pulls out into traffic, turns up Third, and continues to maybe Thirty-Fourth Street. At stop lights she leans over more animatedly than ever, without in the least disturbing his concern for the road. When she runs out of things to say, she breaks into song.

She also says and sings a great deal of nonsense. One strains to make out the French or Italian, before accepting it as an invented language. At first one finds it disconcerting, like the young couple themselves. Then it gets really funny—until it, them, and the movie have come to feel confrontational once more. Even the black man's sober pace behind the wheel could stand as a rebuke.

After ten very long minutes, the driver heads over to find a spot on Park Avenue. If he has a destination beyond finishing the movie, the film is not sharing it. The closing credits refer to the couple as the "doctor" and his wife, but if intermarriage shocked a few back then, so might their strangeness to each other—or to their surroundings. The soundtrack slips into that Leiber and Stoller country blues, the screen darkens, and that is that.

Or that would be that, except that the whole thing starts all over again and runs precisely as before—twice. One thing does change, however, the addition of subtitles. The film's second third purports to translate the woman's lunacy, which, accommodatingly enough, confirms one's suspicions about her. She is not, she rambles on, demented, whatever her friend says about her. And promise, if she gets fat, shoot her. Of course, the camera would oblige her.

Counting the victims

One may take the black man's silence for consent. If so, the final third may again seem curiously accommodating. The titles now speak for his growing impatience: "BLAH BLAH BLAH."

If this sounds at once fascinating, hilarious, and thoroughly annoying, welcome to the club. In contrast to the acclaim for Pull My Daisy, Leslie's second film has largely slipped out of memory. Even "in" people don't seem to have heard of it, and the New York Public Library does not have a copy to lend. Initial audiences apparently booed, and the film happily responds—with raucous applause under all three rounds of closing titles.

The film keeps disturbing an audience for good reason. As with its threefold repetition in different languages and from shifting points of view, it persists whatever one thinks while subtly changing its targets. For starters, one has the familiar avant-garde turn against the establishment. The movie's literalism ties it the underground cinema of Andy Warhol or Hollis Frampton's of a lemon, now on view in the stairwell of the reopened Museum of Modern Art. The division into chapters may recall Jean-Luc Godard from around the same time. To rub in the point, the man tapes to the dashboard an old-fashioned alarm clock, which resets to noon before counting out each segment's ten minutes.

Then again, as with abstract painting or Andy Warhol, can Leslie really still trust the avant-garde? One can see the subtitles, the incomprehensible words, and the barely comprehensible visuals as a parody of the high-minded French and Italian new waves. The opening logo could represent a nonexistent production company with a European-sounding name, and the closing logo changes to fin. One can hear O'Hara's script as a poet's immersion in sound poetry or as an American vernacular. One can see the drive through New York as an artist's declaration of independence from the latest guardians of culture, whether in Paris or at the Museum of Modern Art.

Do not forget two other victims—the viewer's expectations and the movie itself. At the screening in Allan Stone's backyard shed, couples get up and leave after just a segment, without the least awareness that they have missed a thing. And those who remain must compare at least three versions of reality, not to mention their own. The last set of subtitles claims repeatedly to represent the man's point of view, but do they protest too much? When he complains about the idiocy, does he really mean his passenger and not the film? In one final breaking of the movie's frame, he grumbles that he told Leslie not to use that song.

Characters within a film cannot see the work as a whole. Neither, no doubt, can mere critics. I should love to see Leslie's career at length and in depth, including the turn to portraiture, for a more complex account of continuity and change. I hope that someone attempts it soon.

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"Alfred Leslie: 1951–1962, Expressing the Zeitgeist" ran at Allan Stone through December 22, 2004. Leslie has been called an Abstract Expressionist and a realist, a Pop artist and a portrait painter, an underground filmmaker and a traditionalist, in your face, and simply a painter. He is also a terrific draftsman, and as of summer 2009 he was arranging his life and work into a series of online artist books (and films). Check it out. A related review catches Leslie in 2012, with "The Lives of Some Women."


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