"Alfred Leslie 1951-1962: Expressing the Zeitgeist," Oct. 16-Dec. 22, 2004, at the Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street, New York, N.Y. 10128
I was drawn to them as soon as I saw them: the two vertical bands, more or less broadly painted, that appear in many of the works that Al Leslie made in the late 1950s and early 60s. It was a special moment, when Pop art and Minimalism were not yet born and Abstract Expressionism seems to have become redundant, a sign of success but also of conventionalization.
The bands appear abruptly, an ironic oasis in the painterly wilderness.
Usually short, as though they are literally slapdash, they nonetheless have an air of deliberateness. Theyre clearly architectonic in import, however jerrybuilt the structure -- a kind of thrown together grid, with planar bricks and gestural mortar. But the gestures do not always hold the planes together, perhaps because the former are flung chances and the latter were never flush to begin with.
The bands are like flattened pillars, sturdy yet ghostly: like pressed leaves, they seem intact, but theyve become memories. They in fact resemble monumental ruins -- upright columns standing alone, without even the thought of a dome to support -- signaling the aspiration and grandeur that once was. They may seem melodramatic and out of place -- moments of stability in the otherwise unstable surface -- but they are the one fixed place in the painterly quicksand. Theyre the most memorable part of Leslies memorable paintings, perhaps because theyre symbols of permanence in the midst of the changing painterly process. They endure while the scene surges around them, heroic figures holding their own against the rushing tide. Some of the gestural splashes have been tamed into smooth foam, but the feeling of epic turbulence remains whatever the sensation of infinite drift and ephemerality. The bands may be part of the ground, but they also stand out from it, with a kind of concentrated intensity that contradicts its energy.
The bands are green in Four Panel -- Big Green (1956-57), white in Quartet #1 (1958) and Untitled (1959), black in ArrivatoZampano, #62, Yellow3rd and TexasBaby (all 1959) and in NixonNixon (1960), and red in #9 (1960).
Black bands and white bands stand on opposite sides of the central black square in Guevara (1960). In a number of small works from 1960, all mixed media and collage, there is a similar juxtaposition of black and white pairs of bands. There is clearly a drama to the contradiction, all the more so when the twin bands are black and red or, more subtly, luminous white and light blue, as occurs in some of the small works. There are also yellow bands and brown bands, and multiple bands, sometimes arranged in a fading seriality, as in Untitled (ca. 1959).
The juxtaposition of two green stripes, tightly pressed together, and two pinkish white stripes, slightly overlapping, in the The Black Line (1960-61) -- a particularly large painting -- is especially startling, even unnerving. The pairs remain recklessly unresolved, even as their relationship is technically resolved by reason of their resemblance and placement in the structure. CoughControl (1961-62) is an even more daring work -- a consummately unresolved work: the grid breaks apart. The pictorial result is a provocative disequilibrium -- a very far cry from Mondrians dynamic equilibrium.
Leslies disturbing asymmetry may seem to be a chip off the old block of Mondrians harmonious asymmetry, but it in fact chips away at it and finally cracks it open. It is a European Humpty Dumpty that has had a bad American fall and cant be put back together again.
I had all kinds of associations to the bands. First I thought of them as the residue of a figure -- two legs, as it were, sometimes in pants, sometimes in charred nakedness, suggesting that they were dead. Was the aborted figure a kind of memento mori of the Holocaust? It was slowly but surely being assimilated by Jewish-American abstract artists. Abstract art works indirectly and suggestively, through a kind of aura -- subtly tragic in the case of Rothkos paintings, violently tragic in the case of Leslies.
Farfetched, no doubt, but a friend also thought they were weirdly figurative, and transitional to Leslies later figurative works. These seemed to have abandoned Abstract Expressionism, but they in fact drew on the figurative concerns it had from the start. Guston did the same thing in his post-Abstract Expressionist figurative paintings -- which are clearly Holocaustal in import.
I had other associations, spurred on by friends. The bands are Leslies way of branding his paintings -- or perhaps tagging them, the way wild animals are tagged and let out into the wilderness. They are exclamation marks, signaling that the paintings were meant to be read -- like the abstract landscapes they sometimes seemed to be. Indeed, like the trees in many representational landscapes, they function as repoussoir devices creating the illusion of depth and distance.
Or are Leslies bands beacons in a sublime landscape -- lighthouses in a storm, sometimes overwhelmed by its blackness? They in fact suggest the sublime scale of his space. Are the two little figures (derived from Bcklin) that de Chirico sometimes put in his surreal space the ancestors of Leslies abstract little figures? There is a Surreal aspect to his space, as its incongruous planes suggest, and Leslies gesturalism owes a great deal to Surrealist automatism, as all Abstract Expressionist painting does.
At the same time, horizontals and verticals are firmly in place -- except for the conflicting diagonals in CoughControl, they are never disrupted or interrupted -- as Quartet #1 makes clear. They contain the flow of the planes -- made of gestures, they have a certain weight and density as well as fluidity -- however much it may overflow into the adjoining plane. The division of Quartet #1 into planar quadrants -- horizontal and vertical neatly cross in the center -- suggests that it is a kind of painterly construction. Again and again Leslie divides his paintings into quadrants -- ArrivatoZampano, #9, #62, and Yellow 3rd are obvious examples, along with many of the collages -- each equal in value however different in character.
The resulting structure looks more haphazard in the collages -- the use of staples, seemingly as randomly placed as the pieces of colorful paper are randomly shaped, suggests its precariousness -- but the planar quadrants often seem more intact and stable, however overlapping and interacting, than they do in the paintings. There is a lyric touch to the collages, while the paintings seem punch-drunk and punchy. Leslie worked with poets (Frank OHara, among others); the planar quadrants can be read as stanzas in an offbeat poem. Full of gestural fury and resounding color, and rhythmically related, they suggest that the poems are free visual verse -- an ironical fusion of Mallarman and Rimbaudian intonations, that is, deliriously transcendent.
Leslie, then, is a serious formalist -- a much less fussy formalist than Guston in his Abstract Expressionist heyday, and than Pollock often is in his all-over paintings. But just as intricate, if with a different kind of intricacy. Leslies bold, broad handling seems to anticipate de Koonings in the so-called pastoral abstractions of the 60s, without the ironic loveliness. But a formalist understanding of Leslie has its limits, just as the search for symbols does (are the bands the wings of Icarus, all that remains of him, morbidly suspended in space?). There is declarative vehemence to Leslies bands that suggests they are a kind of perceptual manifesto: they are the gates of perception, as Aldous Huxley called it, standing in the midst of what he called the Suchness one perceives going through them. Huxley thought that art offered a second-hand Suchness; Leslies paintings show that it can offer a first-hand Suchness -- the immediate Suchness experienced in an epiphanic burst. To give us unmediated Suchness is the ambition of the best Abstract Expressionist paintings, and Leslies epitomize it -- even as they mediate it by structuring and qualifying it. And yet structure and quality -- the axiomatic coordinates of horizontal and vertical, the qualitative relativity of light, darkness, fluidity, solidity, and color -- are just as Such as the painterly material Leslie manipulates to such effect. One might say that Leslies works are riffs on Suchness -- Suchness in all its jazziness.
The exhibition is accompanied by a showing of Leslies movies Pull My Daisy (1959), The Last Clean Shirt (1964), and The Cedar Bar (2002). Pull My Daisy, co-directed with Robert Frank and shot in Leslies loft studio, is a landmark of American underground films, now part of the National Film Registry. A number of now prominent figures performed in it, including Richard Bellamy, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Neel and Larry Rivers. It is perhaps Jack Kerouacs best script: he literally puts his words into the mouths of the performers -- he does all the talking (the God-like voiceover) -- suggesting they are puppets on an ironic narrative string. Shot in a kind of gritty gray, the film is a Beat masterpiece. The studio becomes a kind of sanctuary from the world -- an ecumenical place, in which poets and the proletariat (Rivers plays a train conductor) happily mingle in a space of their own.
Theres a social revolutionary undertone to the film, as there is in Nix on Nixon and Guevara -- political opposites if ever there were any. A bishop -- played by Bellamy, in a white suit -- and his mother (Neel) and sister visit; the beatniks argue with him, and the mother plays the organ.
Rivers saxophone and a friend who drops in with a French horn drown her out with their music -- jazz. The film in effect begins with the voice of a jazz singer and ends with an improvised jam session. Joined by the train conductor, the beatniks go off into the night -- presumably to a jazz club -- leaving his wife and child behind. He has quarreled with her, and has no wish to reconcile. She is even more of an alien than the bishop and his family, even though she is supposed to be a painter. We never see her painting or any of her paintings. All she does is take care of the child and serve the men, who are children in spirit -- or are trying to be, as their forced (make-believe?) playfulness suggests. Even the unconventional beatniks were conventional male chauvinists.
There are suggestions of homosexuality, one involving a reference to the alcoholic homosexual poet Hart Crane, a suicide and early hero of the homosexual Corso -- a wino in the film (he drinks from a gallon jug) -- and Ginsberg, and like them a malcontent (or is it misfit?). Crane was beaten by life -- and perhaps art. His sequence of visionary poems celebrating the Brooklyn Bridge has been regarded as a magnificent failure. His fate haunted them: there but for the grace of the group of which they were a part -- the intimate little community, in which they shared the ups and downs of their lives and art -- they would go. Beat: one definition is to be so down one doesnt know what up is (however many ups one has). The characters in the film seem to be making the best -- making art -- of being down, in all the senses of that word.
Kerouac famously suggested that the problem of Beat poetry was to turn Beat into Beatific. He was not sure that such a miracle -- the idea was derived from his Catholicism -- was possible. The film in fact suggests that everything profane -- including the daisies between the homosexual poets legs -- is sacred, as an exchange with the bishop suggests. Jazz transforms depression (the blues) and sexuality (that is, gissom, the slang for ejaculate from which the word jazz is derived) into a new kind of sacred music. Profane experiences and low down feelings become high art. But some people think that jazz remains so haunted by the feeling of being beaten by life -- however joyous and upbeat it may sound -- that it never reaches the beatific heights of organic music. Like Beat poetry, jazz often seems too sentimental and self-pitying to soar beatifically. Thus the characters in Pull My Daisy are Icarian angels, trying to fly as they fall, beaten down by the everyday world outside the studio.
I am suggesting that Leslies paintings are jazz(y) improvisations, struggling to turn the feeling of being beat into beatific sensation. I think they do so much more convincingly than Beat poetry, which tends to remain bogged down in misery, as Ginsbergs Howl suggests. Beatific art out of everyday beatenness -- thats the ambition. By the late 50s Abstract Expressionism had been more or less beaten to death by overuse. Leslie raised its ailing spirit, however briefly, by jazzing it up. He did so by reminding us that it was about the perception of Suchness -- the Suchness of jazz notes and of the painterly gestures that aspired to be their equals.
It is the old musical metaphor for abstract painting, but with a different music -- not Kandinskys chamber music but the rough and ready, vital and futile, unfinished and fertile, music of outsider Americans.
The reminder itself -- the reminder that creative perception is the beginning of art -- is more than enough to make Leslie an important artist, especially because he made it when creative perception seemed to have exhausted itself. Pop art and Minimalism confirm that it never quite recovered. They are symptoms of avant-garde entropy. Smithson suggested as much when he called Judds specific objects entropic, and Alloway unwittingly identified the entropic element in Pop art when he labeled it crowd art. But, in the interregnum between High Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art and Minimalism -- the latter have a similar deadpan attitude, that is, convey flat affect, however ironically -- Leslie showed that it was still possible to make powerful perceptual music, openly dissonant but implicitly harmonious, and as such strangely seductive as well as upsetting and off-putting.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.