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Atlanta's Paul Jones
Advocate of African American art reflects on his legacy

by Cathy Byrd

Alfred Leslie and The Cedar Bar

by Teri Tynes

With a new film, The Cedar Bar, a new millennium edition of his 1960s one-shot review, The Hasty Papers, and the presence of earlier films-Pull My Daisy, The Last Clean Shirt, Alfred Leslie's Birth of a Nation 1965-on so many film programs, Alfred Leslie, now 74, is beginning to be recognized as one of American avant-garde cinema's pioneers. In August, organizers of the 9th Annual Chicago Underground Film Festival will screen his films and present him with their Lifetime Achievement Award. Art historians and critics recognize Leslie as an important visual artist, first as an up-and-coming member of the New York School and now as one of the founding fathers of contemporary figurative realism, but many are unaware of Leslie's career in film while the film world remains equally ignorant of Leslie's art historical significance.

Publicity poster for Alfred Leslie's movie The Cedar Bar. Leslie wrote the endorsements purported by Ezra Pound and Robert Storr as part of a long-standing joke. (Photo courtesy of the artist).

Leslie has always worked in a variety of media, to have more than one "public voice," as he describes it. As a filmmaker, writer, and visual artist, Leslie has even fought with himself over the propriety of trying to make his way in the world with multiple voices, knowing that the art world is as susceptible to the pressures of specialization as any other business. Artists inclined to work in more than one medium today can look toward Leslie as a role model and as someone who knocked down many of the preconceived boundaries between visual art and film.

Leslie applies a central set of ideas to both his canvases and his work in film-multilayering, emphasizing multiple points of view, and retaining a strong sense of the viewer, who he values as someone who completes the picture. In his earlier abstract canvases, his ground-breaking large Grisailles portraits of the mid 1960s and his films, Leslie has also trumpeted the value of ideas and the thinking process.

When Leslie was nineteen, he was a precocious self-taught artist and intellectual, raised in what he describes as "the upper reaches of the Bronx." After a stint in the service, he studied with Tony Smith, William Baziotes, Hale Woodruff and John McPherson for a year at New York University. Leslie, who had taught himself many things, entered into the vibrant post-war culture of New York, but with some rough edges. For example, when he met Erwin Piscator for dinner at a French restaurant with the theater director and his entourage, Leslie asked for a bottle of catsup, prompting Piscator to say he had never met such "an animal." By the time he met up with other painters in 1946, though, Leslie was conversant in the culture, fluent in the literary and intellectual currents of the time.

Sitting in his studio in the East Village where he has just cleaned off his computer desk to begin a new work, Leslie reflected on his life then and now. Of the post-war era he says, "We thought that we were at a time when an art was dawning that responded to political events and to the issues that people live with but not in the way it was done before. We wanted not to make a politicized propagandistic art but to get back to philosophic issues where you could have some sense of trust in the process of making-which meant reinventing the practice of art, trying to return to basics. Realism seemed out of touch with reality because one could only despair when one thought of what? Paint pictures of people in the concentration camps? Paint pictures of all the dead and dying in nuclear waste at Hiroshima? That seemed to trivialize those deaths. But you could make pictures which were non-narrative and filled with content. Many of my older painter friends spoke about an art that was filled with content but did not necessarily show objects and incident. They felt mark-making and the absence of marks and elements of color could lead to some deeper truth. Doubt was always a very important part of it."

He continued, "You made your mistakes, you had your success. Everything happened out in the open. This was a very powerful and wonderful thing. And there was not the generational segregation you seem to have today. Imagine I'm 23 years old and considered an up and coming artist. Clement Greenberg is one of my supporters. I'd be sitting at the table, and then walking in would be Hans Hofmann who was Henri Matisse's generation. No one thought of Hans as an old man. There was that sense of comradeship and sense of community. It was inter-generational and it was interdisciplinary. When Merce Cunningham would have a concert the audience was not the dance world, it was the painters, and when John Cage had a concert the audience was not other musicians it was the painters. And the preferred drug at the time was alcohol."

When Leslie was in his early twenties, Clement Greenberg, Meyer Shapiro and others had discovered him. In group shows his work was frequently singled out and celebrated. Leslie, however, was also making films. In 1949 his third film titled Directions: A Walk After the War Games, co-directed with Thomas Guarino, was screened at the Museum of Modern Art. The event went unimaginably well, and it precipitated an important internal crisis, inviting a serious inner dialogue. He remembered, "You have this film screening that has happened quite accidentally. You're a baby. You have no way of supporting yourself. You have no money. You did odd jobs... How are you going to now sustain a life as a filmmaker and a painter because suddenly my ambitions as a filmmaker, painter and a writer had all come together! The screening at the Museum of Modern Art forced a shattering clarity on me. And I thought, 'Well you just had a show of all your photographs and these films, done this and that... How are you going to be able to develop as an artist? This is going to be fucking hard. So I thought, 'I've got to take the pressure off ...I've got to remain free and I've got to remain independent. The way I can go is to have one public voice and to do everything else privately. You can write. You can make films. You can talk about what you want, but don't try to have any public life in everything. Focus exclusively on your life as a painter and everything else can be a private voice.' To sharpen this distinction I sold my typewriter and camera equipment. I got rid of everything so there would be no temptations in my studio and I focus on my art, on my painting."

Whenever he wanted to make photographs he would borrow equipment, and he made no effort to publish his writing. This strategy worked about seven years until, in 1957, he received a Polaroid camera as a gift. Leslie loved the camera and its immediacy. He took "mug shots" of people who came to the studio. He considered making films again, launching yet another internal conversation. "And then I thought, 'Alfred, this is going to be the most destructive thing in the world unless you realize that you have to decide whether you're an artist...Yes, you can be a painter but you won't necessarily be an artist, just as you can be an artist and not necessarily a painter. You have to lose these boundaries you have imposed on your sensibility. Let them all come into conflict with each other. Let the war, as it were, your internal war, begin. You don't know where it will take you but the only way you'll really mature as an artist is by letting this happen. And of course this will make a lot of people angry.'"

Leslie then began making Pull My Daisy with Robert Frank, narrated by Jack Kerouac. The film featured Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Alice Neel, Larry Rivers, and others. Now considered a beat classic, the film is also considered an important work in the creation of American underground film. The Librarian of Congress named it to the National Film Registry. At the same time he published The Hasty Papers.

In 1964 Leslie made a thirty-nine minute experimental film, The Last Clean Shirt, with subtitles by his friend Frank O'Hara; the next year, he worked to complete Alfred Leslie's Birth of a Nation 1965. In the first film, a young white woman and black men get into a car and tape an alarm clock to the dashboard. They drive around New York, with the woman chirping something, her body animated with gestures. The two light cigarettes, and we continue to see the woman talking. The scene is baffling and long, and Leslie repeats the action twice, both times with different subtitles by O'Hara. At the New York and London film festivals that year, The Last Clean Shirt provoked some hysteria, reminiscent of the debut of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Now the work is considered a structuralist masterpiece and an important moment in American avant-garde cinema.

Alfred Leslie's Birth of a Nation 1965 consisted of separate plays drawing upon the words of O'Hara and the writing of the Marquis de Sade. In 1966 the film, yet to be shown publicly, was screened at the New York Film Festival.
While making these films, Leslie was also creating a sensation with his new paintings, the Grisailles. "The formal elements in these paintings are highly conceptual and related to my films," he said. "But people don't seem to get it. They don't recognize that in almost all Grisaille paintings, the paintings have four horizons, and the light in the painting comes from multiple light sources that are irrational, not justified. And just as in my abstract painting, there is always frontality and confrontation. So these Grisailles are completely non-naturalistic but realistic. You look and say 'Hey! There's something wrong,' but recognize and accept all that's given. The idea was that the picture has to be in some Brechtian sense an initial assault on the audience, because there is only one moment that you can slug them-that first time-and then after that it's gone, and they have to get into the depth of the work on their own. So I wanted not only to break into their space but also to leave something for them, the layering that I put in the picture....The picture Jesus and Lazarus, for example, was not about God or religion but about the options available to the practice of painting. It was part of a group of works that I wanted to make that would by example propose to artists that they needn't restrict what they made. People mistakenly read them as proposing some neo-con return to nineteenth century academic painting and as a condemnation of abstraction."

"When I began my figurative work, people thought there was a great rupture, that I was a convert overnight. But this was careless scholarship, indifference to the facts. In 1959 he makes this film Pull My Daisy, which I consider to be my first realist work, and then at the same time publishes this magazine, The Hasty Papers, what is it he is saying to us? A review of The Hasty Papers in poetry project's newsletter a while back addressed this head-on, saying I was issuing a challenge to Greenberg, making a case for interdisciplinarity. Yes, I was saying that artists can, if they want to and if they will, enter other disciplines and do it with authority."

Alfred Leslie, Alfred Leslie/1966-67,
1966-67, oil on canvas, 108 by 72 inches (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art).

"I made the first Grisailles, re-introduced the figure, to expand the boundaries of what an artist can do. I thought the figure and the painting of a portrait was the most discredited thing in the art world, and if I could tackle something that was wholly discredited and show that there was some tiny glimpse of value in it while making beautiful work, this would be a wonderful accomplishment. So as I made the early figurative works first for myself, and also, as all my works are, for other artists."

These portraits not only inspired other artists such as Chuck Close but also artists who worked in other media. When Leslie's friend Peter Weiss, a painter and playwright, saw the work in Leslie's studio, Weiss was inspired to draw similar ideas for the staging of The Investigation, a work made up wholly of the transcripts of the 1964-1965 German court trial of twenty-one Auschwitz guards. In later years the new figurative movement considered Leslie a founding father.

On the night of October 17, 1966, a fire consumed Leslie's studio at Broadway and 22nd Street, destroying nearly all its contents-most of the ground-breaking large scale portraits, the Grisaille paintings, film footage, the original documents for The Hasty Papers, and much more. Standing at the street corner alongside his wife and young child, Leslie watched one of his own self-portraits, one he had placed in the corner so it could be viewed from the street, disintegrate in the flames. It was one of the most tragic fires in New York history at the time, one in which twelve firemen lost their lives. In its aftermath, Leslie worked hard to document the loss while finding a way forward. Only three of the Grisailles survived the fire as they were temporarily at other locations. He discontinued the series, as he was painting them serially and needed to have them all there to advance the next idea. In part to distance himself from the emotional reminder of the fire, he started a new set of paintings that added color. A photo taken the week after the fire shows him standing in the rubble, looking up, holding a small piece of film between his fingers. He said, "I realized then I had to live two lives; one in the past reconstructing what was lost, the other in the present making new works."

As Leslie struggled to tie his own story together, to reclaim the bits from the debris, the public record, and from friends, he also looked toward restarting his filmwork, which he had temporarily put aside in the aftermath of the fire, and to reinvestigating the narrative element in art. This aspect became more and more prominent, especially by the late 1970s. Leslie was also near to beginning his filmwork again. Barbara Rose, in American Painting: The Twentieth Century discusses Leslie's desire to restore some of the narrative content in painting, singling out works such as The Killing Cycle and other large-scale homages to David, Caravaggio and Rubens. Rose notes, too, the influence of film on Leslie's paintings: "As large as the projections on movie screens, Leslie's figures are seen in exaggerated close-ups influenced by cinematic images."1

The Cedar Bar, his most recent work, is busy and tumultuous, reflecting both the issues that affected Leslie as a young artist and his preoccupations a half century later. A tour de force in desktop moviemaking and the creative possibility of found footage, the work consists of images from over two hundred sources. Much of it is based a staged reading of a play that Leslie wrote in 1952, and re-wrote in 1986 after it was lost in the fire. A remembrance of a night of heavy art discussion at their famous watering hole, the work centers around the confrontation between the artists-Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler and others-with Greenberg. The film intercuts the staged reading with an assortment of images that evoke the mood of that cultural moment and provide a running commentary on the conversation. That moment is steeped in vibrant public discussions about art. It is also steeped in alcohol. Originally, Leslie had just wanted to get the dialogue down and then film it, but the concept grew as the dictates of process asserted itself. The work became more and more complex with each layer, each allusion. Leslie found clips he wanted to use (to "re-purpose" them, as Paul Cullum describes it in an article in L.A. Weekly), always changing their contrast and color and sometimes their speed until they found their own musicality and rhythm. He also replaced the sound elements in most of the clips. His description of The Hasty Papers as "an egalitarian choral work" also applies to The Cedar Bar.

The Cedar Bar received general praise at its debut at the 2001 New York Video Festival. The work, however, confounded many viewers, the problematic issues stemming from Leslie's fluency in art and in film. The art camp wanted more narrative closure, a more definitive answer on Leslie's feelings about critic Clement Greenberg. Those in the film camp were too unfamiliar with the intellectual dialogue surrounding the art world of the 1940s and 1950s.

The reception of The Cedar Bar surprised him, especially the fact that people seemed so taken aback by the intensity of the arguments, so surprised that anyone would get so hot-under-the-collar about ideas they'd start punching each other around. "Those days the names 'Greenberg' and 'de Kooning' meant conflict as Greenberg threw his weight behind Pollock and that pissed de Kooning off. Greenberg stood at the time, and still does to some degree, stand for a certain kind of arrogance and abuse of power. But despite that I still think he was a great literary mind, a great literary figure and a great critic, one of the finest of the past century. He was also just what was needed at the moment to underline how serious artists took themselves then. If anyone still remembers their own sense of resolve and purpose after September 11 and relates it to the end of World War II they might get a better handle on understanding those times. Artists set standards then, not critics, curators and dealers."

Still from Alfred Leslie's most recent film,
The Cedar Bar (Photo courtesy the artist).

In The Cedar Bar, Leslie not only constructs the subject but supplies an audience. The constant cut-aways of reaction shots, many fabulously re-purposed from televised award ceremonies, construct a classic Brechtian effect. Leslie has us watch celebrities-Denzel, Arnold, Julia-ripped from the context of celebrating and legitimizing their own media to comment upon this other narrative, Leslie's commentary about the art and the critic. Ultimately it's not that different. The Cedar Bar raises issues about the power of the critic in the rise of the celebrity painter, the construction of the canon of the art history of that period, and certainly, the popular culture's inventive myths about the abstract expressionists. In Leslie's universe, there's no easy stereotyping of the art and the artist in post-war New York. That world comes across, at various times, as brilliant, alcoholic, troubled, and original. Cullum, in the LA Weekly article, describes the film as an "anti-Pollock," referring to Ed Harris's traditional narrative film.

Leslie explained his intellectual problem making the film. "How do you make a film about how arbitrary all this classifying and categorizing can be and its relationship and effect on the lives of artists without it being just academic gobbledygook?" he asked. "My idea was through non-naturalistic distancing, layering very much like my paintings. It's realistic but it's non-naturalistic, and that's because in the structure of it, I go into the mind of the viewer and try to unlock all those parallel references floating around in there."

The freshest viewers, Leslie has found, come from the youngest
generation. He showed me his favorite review, a thank you note from a nineteen year old who got to know Leslie and The Cedar Bar at an early 2001 spring screening in Columbia, South Carolina. She wrote in her letter, "The film blew me away. I don't think I have ever thought so many things at once." He said, "That, to me, was someone that got the film. The fact that it made her think was what the film was all about. All great films supposedly make you think but not all films are based on the idea of thought and the thinking process itself and as not as an academic exercise. Actually a nineteen year old has been brought up on that kind of thinking process, and I think that one of the earliest artists to codify and teach us about it is Ezra Pound in the Cantos. Here you'll find the source for the so-called cut-up methods of Burroughs. Stuff which is part and parcel of our world culture. Today we are capable of digesting enormous amounts of information. We sit with our remotes and go through all the channels click click click click click.... of course whether or not it's any information that is any value to us, we can digest it. But this is all old hat even if we don't know the part the early modernists played in laying down the path."

He continued, "The musicals were a phenomena of almost pure abstraction. The other kind of Hollywood film was a most extreme kind of formalist realism such as George Stevens' A Place in the Sun. A contradiction in terms but accurate anyway. In that kind of film, process was meant to be invisible. You were never to know anything about the artifices or the structure of the film. It was all meant to be seen as effortless smooth transitions from one scene to the next. No ostentatious wipes, page turns, flip-overs, no extreme camera angle and movements, all those things Busby Berkeley in his great genius gave us. So The Cedar Bar is a musical, an abstract work. It is non-naturalistic but real, Brechtian in the sense that its reach is in trying to get the audience to participate, to think."
Toward the end of our conversation, Leslie brought up the problem of relevance, of creating and making accessible any work of art. "There has to be some kind of relevance, something that we can bring to it," he said. "So the more complex the infrastructure, the intellectual aspects of all the material, of all the references, the more you know about it, the richer it can be. But the bitch is sometimes it works against you because the person is so involved making sense of all those narrative elements that come in, they miss the picture. Making sense can be what a work is about but it's not necessary. For an artist there are no rules except the ones you make for yourself. For myself I think what I like best is to make works that excite me and that unlock the storehouse of information inside the head of the viewers."

1 Barbara Rose, American Painting: The Twentieth Century, 1977, Rizzoli International.

Alfred Leslie's films will be screened at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, August 22-28, 2002, at Landmark's Century Cinema, where he will be presented with a lifetime achievement award. Further information about the festival is available at www.cuff.org.

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