Alfred Leslie, Artist Who Turned Away From Abstraction, Dies at 95

Alfred Leslie, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist and filmmaker who turned his back on nonrepresentational art in the early 1960s to lead a revival of figurative painting, died on Friday in Brooklyn. He was 95.

His son Anthony said the cause of his death, at a hospital, was complications of a Covid infection.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Leslie was part of a rising generation of New York abstract painters that included Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Milton Resnick. Inspired by the aggressive paintings of Willem de Kooning, he employed a frantic style disciplined by geometric planes.

The painter and critic Fairfield Porter, reviewing Mr. Leslie’s first solo show, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in Manhattan in 1952, praised the “fresh, romantic, reckless expressionism” of his work. It made the competition, he wrote, “seem prim and tight by comparison.”

Mr. Leslie took part in two landmark shows of the day: the “New Talent” exhibition organized by the critics Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro at the Kootz Gallery in 1950 and the “Ninth Street Show” the next year, sometimes referred to as the coming-out party of the New York School. In 1959, the curator Dorothy C. Miller included him in “Sixteen Americans,” one of her influential new-talent shows at the Museum of Modern Art, along with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella.

Mr. Leslie was not satisfied. He began chafing against what he saw as the limitations of abstraction.

“The virtual banishment of figuration and narrative from the vocabulary of so many thoughtful artists was one of the legacies of the modernists, who handed them over to photography in all its forms,” he said in an interview with Art in America in 2007. “I never accepted this.”

Mr. Leslie in front of one of his works in 1986.Credit…Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

In 1962 he embarked on a series of larger-than-life-size portraits in gray and white, a style known as grisaille. “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,” he told the magazine Art Papers in 2002.

His subjects, lit dramatically from multiple sources, faced the viewer squarely — a one-on-one confrontation that many critics found disturbing, even repellent. One of the most famous paintings in the series, a self-portrait, showed Mr. Leslie with hands in pockets, shirt open, expression deadpan — a giant, unignorable fact on canvas.

Speaking to the art historian Barbara Flynn in 1991 for her monograph “Alfred Leslie: The Grisaille Paintings, 1962-1967,” Mr. Leslie said: “I wanted to leave out all the so-called niceties surrounding the picture, the personal touch, beautiful paint handling, color, action, storytelling, and just present the picture of a person unequivocally, without any excuses, and simply say, ‘Here. Here is a person standing in front of you. Now what?’”

Mr. Leslie had taken a decisive turn, embarking on a lifelong exploration of the portrait, history painting and the possibilities of visual narrative, rooted in the practice of the old masters but recast in a modern idiom. With fellow apostates like Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Jack Beal and William Bailey, he found himself in the thick of a movement that took center stage in the pluralistic 1970s.

A scene from “The Cedar Bar,” a film produced, written and directed by Mr. Leslie and based on his 1952 play.Credit…Anthology Film Archives

Alfred Leslie was born Alfred Lippitz on Oct. 29, 1927, in the Bronx. His parents, Irving and Jeanette (Wolff) Lippitz, were German immigrants.

He began drawing as a child and by 10 was developing his own photographs. At 14, he was shooting 16-millimeter films. He was also a gymnast and an avid body builder who competed in the Mr. Bronx competition.

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1945, Mr. Leslie served two years in the Coast Guard and then, to take advantage of the G.I. Bill, studied art with the sculptor Tony Smith and the painter William Baziotes at New York University. He also took classes at the Art Students League of New York and Pratt Institute. To earn extra money, he posed as an artist’s model at the League in classes taught by Hans Hofmann, Reginald Marsh and Mr. Resnick.

Early on, he embraced experimental film as a medium. “Directions: A Walk After the War Games,” made in the late 1940s, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art around the time that Mr. Leslie’s slashing, gestural painting began to attract notice, and in 1959 he collaborated with the photographer Robert Frank, his neighbor at the time, on the definitive Beat film, “Pull My Daisy.”

Mr. Leslie at his studio in Manhattan. His subjects were lit dramatically and faced the viewer squarely, a confrontation that many critics found disturbing.Credit…Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Adapted by Jack Kerouac from the third act of his unfinished play “Beat Generation” and filmed in Mr. Leslie’s loft with music by David Amram, the film featured the poets Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso and the painters Larry Rivers and Alice Neel in a shambling drama about a railway brakeman and his wife who invite a bishop to dinner, only to have their evening disrupted when a posse of their bohemian friends turns up uninvited.

“It was a few weeks of constant chaos,” Mr. Amram told The New York Times in 2004. “There was all this craziness and screaming going on, and Alfred with this amazingly soothing voice and beautiful diction would get this group of incorrigible crazy young people to do what he wanted us to do. He could have been a hostage negotiator.”

Mr. Leslie returned to film periodically throughout his career, notably in “The Last Clean Shirt” (1964), with subtitles by the poet Frank O’Hara, and “The Cedar Bar” (2002), based on his 1952 play in which leading art-world figures attack Mr. Greenberg, the critic.

His Tibor de Nagy solo show was eventful. To come up with the $250 the gallery demanded for printing and mailing costs, he wangled an appearance on “Strike It Rich,” a television game show in which contestants tugged at the audience’s heartstrings by explaining why they needed money and then answered questions to win the cash.

Mr. Leslie emerged victorious, leaving with the prize money and a giant box of Tide detergent. “When they asked me what I would do with the Tide, I said, ‘I’m going to eat it for breakfast every day,’” he told Art in America.

Mr. Leslie at his studio in 2018. In recent years he produced a series of portraits of literary characters. They were not endearing.Credit…Stephen Speranza for The New York Times

Most of Mr. Leslie’s work was destroyed in 1966 in a spectacular fire that claimed the lives of 12 firefighters as it engulfed three buildings in the Flatiron district of Manhattan.

“It was like a horror film,” he told The Times. “My whole studio burst into flames. I stood on the street and saw my paintings burning through the windows.” A planned exhibition of his grisaille paintings at the Whitney Museum of American Art had to be canceled.

Mr. Leslie threw himself into “The Killing Cycle,” a series of narrative paintings and studies completed over the next 15 years on the death of Mr. O’Hara, who was struck by a Jeep on a Fire Island beach in the summer of 1966. Theatrically lit and emotionally overwrought, they harked back to the history painting of Jacques-Louis David, with the spectral atmosphere of Caravaggio or Georges de La Tour.

In 1976 the Museum of Fine Arts Boston organized a retrospective of his work that traveled to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Mr. Leslie’s four marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his son Anthony, he is survived by his partner, Nancy de Antonio; another son, Joseph; a daughter, Jeanette; and five grandchildren.

Although he concentrated on monumental portraits, his signature, Mr. Leslie also completed “100 Views Along the Road,” a series of 100 black-and-white watercolors documenting road trips undertaken in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In recent years he produced a series of portraits of literary characters, drawn by hand but printed as LightJet photographs. He called the series “Pixel Scores.”

They were not endearing — by design. As he told The Brooklyn Rail in 2015, “I used to think that if people said, ‘God that’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,’ I was doing something good.”

Lyna Bentahar contributed reporting.

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