Friday, October 15, 2010
Alfred Leslie's Declarative America
Alfred Leslie's abstract work from the early 50's to the mid 60's is characterized by bold, splashy brushstrokes that were so irresistibly popular at the time. But, in almost every painting, collage and mixed media piece Leslie created during this period, he adds an element that seems to have an almost defiant relationship to the tradition of gestural abstraction he is working in. Two vertical bands of color usually made of a single thick brush stroke each, invariably appear prominently placed somewhere within the image. These vertical bands are Leslie's distinguishing gesture, a kind of brand he repeats over and over again. The redundancy is so consistent that, one can argue, these marks constitute a form of signature, Leslie's private rebus with which he stakes a claim to a slice of the Abstract Expressionist Pie.
There is something uniquely American about these marks that I think bears discussing. Abstract Expressionist painters may have aspired to a purely American vision yet always seemed to have one eye turned towards Europe. Either formally or conceptually there is a preoccupation with the elaborate, the refined and the virtuosic. Even Pollock, the most brash and cowboy member of the group is ultimately betrayed by a lyricism that owes much to Picasso and the Surrealists.
Which isn't to say that Leslie does not, I think he is a kind of bridge figure, offering both a summation of the recent past and a protean augury of the immediate future. Pop art was In Utero, but before we could get all giddy for those stacks of soup cans and blown up comic strips we had to travel through the smoke filled landscape of the Beat Generation. This is where Leslie comes in, his paintings are both an urban alarm clock and a European lullaby.
They are atmospheric and undeniably beautiful, full of the kind of heroic gusto that was believed to authenticate a true work of art. What could be more European than the need for such overt proof of vitality? Leslie provides this proof, and then inexplicably he cancels it out with those two vertical bands. Like a schoolboy using two lines to cross out a misspelled word in a notebook.
And, this is what I think these marks ultimately are, a negation of European refinement. They make no claim to virtuosity, quite the opposite, they are declarative and blunt. Anyone can make them, and that’s exactly the point, virtuosity is obsolete, direct statement is what matters. It's a shift in emphasis that has remained central for most artists to this day.