Alfred Leslie, whose monumental, planar grisaille portraits of the 1960s at once rejected abstraction and the romanticization of the figure, died January 27 in Brooklyn of complications related to Covid-19. He was ninety-five. A native of New York City, he was an early auteur in the world of underground film beginning in the 1940s, eventually collaborating with Robert Frank on the 1959 Beat classic Pull My Daisy. His figural canvases, begun in the early 1960s, were no less shocking to audiences than Abstract Expressionism had been a generation before, thanks to their direct and unyielding mien. “Leslie’s subjects seem as if they are about to enter the spectator’s viewing space,” wrote Kirby Gookin in a 1992 issue of Artforum. “Their expressionless stares are ominous, which gives them a mural-like presence. One thinks of the monumental work of José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera and the abstract fields of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Leslie’s paintings unite the psychological and the physiological to produce phenomenologically confrontational paintings.”
Alfred Leslie was born in the Bronx in 1927 to German immigrant parents. He exhibited talent in drawing, photography, and filmmaking at a young age, and studied art on the GI Bill at New York University following a stint in the Coast Guard. An accomplished body builder and gymnast, he funded additional classes at the Art Students League of New York and Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute by modeling at both schools. Leslie’s films of this time, such as 1949’s Magic Thinking, collaged snippets of home movies, industrial and commercial footage, and cartoons, anticipating by a decade the detournement of the Situationist International. His Directions: A Walk After the War Games, made around the same time, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1959, he neighbor Frank enlisted poets Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and Peter Orlovsky along with painters Alice Neel and Larry Rivers to star in “Beat Generation,” an adaptation by Jack Kerouac—who served as the film’s narrator—of an act of his unfinished play of the same name.
Leslie continued painting, concurrent with his filmmaking, in 1952 raising money to pay for shipping costs related to a solo exhibition of his work at New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery by appearing on the television show Strike It Rich. Though his early geometric abstractions earned him places in important New York exhibitions, including the Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro–curated “New Talent” (1950) at Kootz Gallery; the “Ninth Street Show” (1950), which introduced the New York School; and Dorothy C. Miller’s “Sixteen Americans” at MoMA in 1959, Leslie grew concerned that painting had abandoned figuration to photography. In 1962, he began a series of colossal gray-scale canvases featuring stark, harshly lit depictions of human subjects who met the viewer’s gaze directly. “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,” he later said, “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.”
In 1964, Leslie shot The Last Clean Shirt, featuring subtitles by his friend the poet Frank O’Hara. In 1966 Leslie suffered a double blow: His studio was destroyed by a massive fire, and with it most of his paintings of this nature, which he would recall watching burn from the street below. As well, O’Hara died in a car accident on Fire Island, a year after painter David Smith, Leslie’s friend, was killed in a similar incident, and a decade after Pollock died the same way. The two events would shape his work in the two decades to come, with Leslie introducing color into his new series “The Killing Cycle,” responding to O’Hara’s death. He continued both to paint figuratively, enjoying solo exhibitions at institutions including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Wichita Art Museum, Kansas; Boca Raton Museum of Art, Florida; and the Saint Louis Art Museum. Later films included 2001’s The Cedar Bar and 2008’s Einstein’s Secret. His most recent series, “Pixel Scores,” showed him engaging with technology in order to create often unflattering portraits of literary figures. He remained impenitent about his unsentimental realism.
“With the multiple horizons and unjustified light I democratize the body,” he told Art in America’s Judith Stein in 2009. “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.”