The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2015

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OCT 2015 Issue
Art In Conversation

ALFRED LESLIE with Phong Bui

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Zack Garlitos.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Zack Garlitos.

Even though I’ve followed Alfred Leslie’s work since I was in college, and although we have many friends in common, until recently I had never met the artist. Having seen both exhibits, Alfred Leslie: The Grisaille Paintings 19621967 at Oil & Steel Gallery in 1991, and Alfred Leslie 19511962: Expressing The Zeitgeist in 2004, my perception of his complex and ambitious oeuvre has deepened in the last few years. On the occasion of his exhibit Alfred Leslie, 10 Men at Janet Borden (October 7November 25, 2015) I paid him a long visit at his East Village studio; our three-hour conversation was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had. It reminds me of the ultimate freedom of artists.

Phong Bui (Rail): Post-World War II New York City is at a considerable distance to the present, especially in the art world. Can you offer us your perspective of how things were then?

Alfred Leslie: The so-called “art world” at the time was miniscule. Duchamp, when asked about how many people he thought had some interest or understanding about abstract painting, said, “Well, maybe three people in New York. And no one in New Jersey.” [Laughter.] I’d say otherwise. Since the 1900s, the United States had been under some form of mobilization—the first being World War I, which segued into many small colonial wars in attempts to build America’s power, in spite of the Great Depression, which in turn required the mobilization of the people to bring their lives together, just in time for World War II. And then, all of a sudden, in 1950 an awareness of what came to be called “American painting” emerged. It was, however, just five years from the end of World War II. During those preceding four years, when the U.S. entered the war after the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, parents were telling their children to hide under their desks when a bomb was dropped somewhere. That was the cultural, social and political apparatus at that time, which we tend to forget. I’d just come out of the service in 1946. I remember going to see shows at galleries on 57th Street. I should say that there were only a few—like Sam Kootz, and Charles Egan, who had just opened—that really understood their relationship to the physical presence of the works of art of the moment. Most of what was being made in New York at that time was made by pioneers who were trying to make statements against a situation that was overwhelmingly against them. It wasn’t until they were understood as being part of a movement or school that they were accepted by the public. An important side note: the New School for Social Research, from 1929 to roughly 1950, brought in thousands of European intellectuals and their families. It made downtown a nexus and haven, a place for the cross-pollination of European and New York intelligentsia.

The artist with his Ten People, 1992 – 98, oil on canvas, each painting 7 × 5 feet, at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2006.

Rail: A direct result of which was the re-launch of the Partisan Review in 1937, when it distanced itself from the Communist Party, including the funding it had received from the John Reed Club since 1934.

Leslie: That was the atmosphere I grew up with.

Rail: I’ve been trying to cultivate a similar multicultural and multiethnic cross-pollination in the Rail without being sentimental or nostalgic. I remember, between 1992 and ’93, helping Lillian Schapiro while Meyer was still with us (he died in 1996, she in 2006) to organize his massive archive of correspondences with friends and colleagues, and I came across a few short letters you wrote to Meyer. One was written in 1958, and was signed by you and Robert Frank with a postscript that said that Jack (Kerouac) was out of town along with the outline for a film trilogy that combined elements of fantasy and realism. The first film was The Sin of Jesus, after the short story by Isaac Babel; the second was The Marvelous Mannequin, based on a story you and Robert Frank wrote; and the third was The Miraculous Mexican Brakeman by Jack Kerouac.

Leslie: Oh! I was asking for money! [Laughter.]

Rail: Fifteen thousand dollars, the total cost of the trilogy. You were asking whether Meyer knew folks who could contribute the funding. The credits were: Photographer, Robert Frank; Director, Alfred Leslie; Screenplay by Jack Kerouac, Robert Frank, and Alfred Leslie.

Leslie: God, I had forgotten all about that.

Rail: Thus far we know that the first, The Sin of Jesus, was later made by Robert Frank in 1961 with Telly Savalas and music by Morton Feldman, but what happened to the other two?

Leslie: It was very simple: Some partnerships work, some partnerships don’t. It only worked on one film, what came to be known as Pull My Daisy.

Rail: Which I saw in my sophomore year. I’d say its definitive capturing of what a “bohemian” life could be was part of every artist’s dream. Can you tell us about your first film, Magic Thinking, made in 1949, when you were twenty-two years old?

Leslie: Well, I began photographing, I guess, when I was about ten. Film came in about when I was around fourteen. The earliest photograph of mine that survived the 1966 fire was a portrait of myself and my mother at the 1939 World’s Fair. I remember setting up my Brownie camera right in front of my mother and myself. I was still wearing knickers. Among the other things that I was able to rescue from the rubble, I salvaged a few black-and-white photographs and two frames from Directions: A Walk After the War Games that I made with Tom Guarino, who was my earliest and my greatest film partner. He was an extraordinary artist who possessed a phenomenally broad intellectual ability. We met when I was twelve or thirteen years old, and we bonded and worked together until about 1950, and then he got married and died a few years later of rectal cancer. He was my first choice as cameraman for the film trilogy you mentioned earlier. His illness canceled that out.

Rail: And you were involved in theater at the same time.

Leslie: Yes. When I met John (Bernard) Myers, he was living with Tibor (de Nagy). Later, when he got together with the theater director Herbert Machiz, they established Artists’ Theater and I did ten plays with them at Lake Hopatcong in New Jersey. I remember the names of seven: The Little Hut, My Three Angels, A Summer’s Day, Detective Story, Gigi, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, and I Am a Camera. It was during the time that Lotte Lenya had a break in her schedule after Threepenny Opera opened in New York, which was a huge success. She eventually had some time off and came to work with us on Martin Vale’s The Two Mrs. Carrolls, which was soon made into a film with Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck (in 1947). She was a great person and we became friends. Meanwhile, David Ross, who had studied with Lee Strasberg, had decided to open up his own production company, Fourth Street Theater, in New York, which was in a small first-floor walk-up space on East 4th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. The first production he put on was S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, with an English translation by Henry G. Alsberg. I designed the stage set. It had a very great cast. And one of my dearest friends at the time, Rachel Armour, played the lead role of Leah, usually played by a much older actress (mostly because of its degree of difficulty). After having done all of those plays, people started asking me to work with them, but essentially I didn’t think they would understand my improvisational sensibility. I thought I would certainly work with David Ross and Herbert Machiz, who were kindred spirits. This was in 1954. Overall I ended up doing about 15 plays in two years.

Self portrait with my mother at the 1938 Worlds Fair.

Rail: At the height of your career as a painter.

Leslie: Yeah, it sounds pretty crazy.

Rail: Amazing Alfred! What more should we know about your third film Directions: A Walk After the War Games?

Leslie: I used to play A Walk After the War Games at all these different rent parties in different studios and lofts, including one where Larry Rivers and Howard Kanovitz lived on the top floor. I would show a couple of short films without soundtracks along with A Walk After the War Games. For those I would recite excerpts from Thoreau, especially his long essay, “Walking,” which suggests that the way to freedom is to take a walk into the wild. Even when you really don’t know where you’re going, or where you’ll end up, you find that, essentially, it’s a place that you can call home. I used footage of myself wearing a monk’s robe walking around the Bowery while reading Thoreau’s texts. These texts were varied. The most elaborate performance that Tom Guarino and I did was for Magic Thinking,at Studio 35. Tom and I had bought a silent 35mm camera, and also some 8 and 16 mm cameras, along with all kinds of army and commercial Hollywood film of different gauge sizes (which cost us next to nothing, as we were buying it at real surplus stores on Canal Street). We would focus projectors on a single screen. And then different people who were working with us would come in while different images were projected from all this footage drawn from these different sources. Tom or I would occasionally run over and put our hands over the screen [Laughs.] so that parts of the image would be partially erased or blocked. There was no continuing montage of images. At the same time, I had randomly stacked a record player and my wire recorder and played odd stuff including the music Peter Kahn wrote for Directions.

Rail: Wolf Kahn’s older brother!

Leslie: Yes. Peter was a good friend of mine. His father, Emil Kahn, was a conductor. His wife, Ruth Stiles Gannett, was a children’s writer, best known for My Father’s Dragon. And her father, Peter’s father-in-law, was Lewis Gannett, the famous writer and journalist who was the book critic for the New York Herald Tribune. Anyway, during that time I was a student at NYU—where I had gone in order to be able to collect on the G.I. Bill, because when I came out of the service I had no money. I knew I had a year’s amount of 52 – 20 Club, which you got automatically. But when that ran out I had to figure out what to do. This was in 1947 when I was renting a room right off 4th Street and 6th Avenue. The room had no water and no toilet, so I used to go to the Waldorf Cafeteria for both. There I would see all of these guys with their hats, sitting drinking coffee. Most were the earlier generation painters whom I eventually met. I didn’t know them at the time. But I recognized a couple of them because I was posing as a model at the Art Students League and Hans Hofmann’s school, as well at Pratt Institute, while waxing floors at various places to survive. Not only were these jobs helping me get along, but posing in the art schools gave me the opportunity to listen in on all the stuff that these artists had lived through. Even though I was hearing-impaired and had no hearing aids I managed to get enough of what was said. Most of their talk came from so-called academics like Frank Dumond and centered on stories about life and art in Germany and France in the 1880’s. But some came from guys like Reginald Marsh and Robert Beverly Hale. But the biggest accidental connection I made was though my first wife’s father, Hymie (which is a variant of Chaim).

Rail: How so?

Leslie: His second cousin, Dr. Saul Colin, was coming to New York from Europe where he had been Luigi Pirandello’s collaborator and assistant. As I told Judith Stein when she interviewed me for Art in America, Dr. Colin came along with many others from Europe who were brought by the New School. He assumed his job as a social secretary to Erwin Piscator and his wife Maria—who was, along with Bertolt Brecht, one of the most famous avant-garde theater directors. Their so-called Epic Theater anticipated the movement in film of that was so influential when Bertolt Brecht and film directors, like Fritz Lang, came to Hollywood. In any case, when Piscator was at the New School he founded the Dramatic Workshop and put on shows I think on 12th Street off of 6th Avenue.

Rail: It’s called the Tishman Auditorium.

Leslie: Right. And he established a teaching school that was the precursor to the Actor’s Studio. Because of Saul Colin, I was invited to dinner from time to time with Piscator and his wife Maria, and was able to audit a few classes that both Piscator and Colin were teaching.

Alfred Leslie, Ornette Coleman. Copyright Alfred Leslie, Courtesy Hill Gallery.

Rail: You could have been an actor.

Leslie: Not really; I was offered different opportunities but I turned them down. In fact, when Arnold Weinstein was working on his play Dynamite Tonight (1967) he offered me a part but I declined because I didn’t want to extend the boundaries of all that I was doing. I knew that what I had to do was to stay within the space, have better control over the boundaries of the things that I could actually do. And to maintain a feeling for the mother of all of the things that I was doing which meant painting and film.

Rail: What were your politics at the time, Alfred? Were you an individualist anarchist like Thoreau, Proudhon, Spencer?

Leslie: Politics is a form of social aggression and most politicians are serial prevaricators.

Rail: The reason I’m asking is because in the first letter that you wrote to Meyer Schapiro, along with the trilogy proposal, you described the ultimate aim of the films as complete disregard for conventional motives, including creating commercial value. They had to be made as works of art. In the second letter written in that same year, 1958, you asked Meyer Schapiro whether he would contribute a “one-shot review” to the Hasty Papers, which is similar to the Rail in that it included poetry, articles on literature, theater, music, semantics, and so on. I also love how it offers that all authors have absolute control over proofreading: no corrections will be made without consulting the authors, including spelling, etc. etc.

Leslie: The idea was to publish the authors’ voices as they were. This editorial freedom is identical to every kind of freedom I have tried to embrace all my life. I was, for example, one of the signatories for The Fair Play for Cuba Committee, even though I don’t have any left- or right-leaning politics, or even middle politics. I am a person who figures out what is going on: who is going to kill me when I’m walking around the corner. But I do know that when I signed that thing, I became a target for the FBI. The FBI visited me because, as it turned out, besides signing the Cuba protest, on the floor below in my building which eventually burned down and killed twelve firemen, was the tiny office of the Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell. I remember when Kennedy was assassinated there was a police car parked in front of my studio, and one parked in front of the office of LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka). Also I still remember when I was in high school, a substitute English teacher who came and taught for a day because the regular teacher was sick. Indeed this substitute was a very unusual man. At that time Billie Holiday had just recorded “Strange Fruit” (1936), and there was a rumor going around the school that he was the song’s writer.

Rail: Lewis Allan was his stage name.

Leslie: Yes, and his real name was Abel Meeropol.

Rail: He taught English at high school (at DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx) from 1927 to 1944, when he turned to music full time.

Leslie: That was when he went to Hollywood using the name Lewis Allan. And when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, Meeropol adopted their two children Robert and Michael Rosenberg. I got to know about this, again as an accident, because they were all living near me when I was post-fire for a time in Massachusetts.

Rail: Can we shift our conversation to the subject of your painting?

Leslie: Absolutely.

940 Bwy studio with Frank Hara looking at Karen Peters.

Rail: I first came to know of your paintings by reading Irving Sandler’s book The New York School: Painters and Sculptors of the Fifties in college. And when I came to New York to study at the New York Studio School for two years I was making paintings between de Kooning in the ’50s, like his Gotham News (1955) and your paintings, especially Abstraction (1956), which I saw at the Neuberger Museum. I should say that your painting was even more aggressive and more spatially congested than de Kooning’s. Can you recall the experience of making that particular group of paintings including The Minx and Collage with Stripes (1956)? Fairfield Porter wrote that you were a reckless expressionist, and Irving wrote that you made your paintings rough, even ugly!

Leslie: Yes. I used to think that if people said, “God that’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” I was doing something good.

Alfred Leslie, Pink Square. Copyright Alfred Leslie, Courtesy Hill Gallery.

Rail: [Laughs.]

Leslie: It was simply a question of staying away from the easy path and to trying to find something consequential in what you were making. Plus, I think of myself as self-taught. My kind of basic skills were pretty much in place when I was a child. I could draw, make films, act. I won prizes and art scholarships and I was a gymnast, but none of it ever seemed to me to be a straight arrow to the truth. (Whatever that means.) Thinking on it now I seem always to be looking for something more consequential but could never figure out what it was. Just when I thought that A was consequential on Monday, I would think it wasn’t on Tuesday. But sometimes, maybe 10 years later, I’d revisit A to work on it. I mean who’s going to take care of it if I don’t? It wasn’t to establish a legacy, which I always stayed away from—partly because I didn’t like the use of the word. I always felt uncomfortable with the amount of vanity involved. I always hoped that, within the framework of making things that I make, it gives out ideas that resonate some kind of truthfulness—even though I never knew what it meant to be truthful—so that, when someone looks at what I’ve done, they might say, “Oh, there’s something there for me.” I still vividly remember a painting I made in 1952, The White Band, which was included in my first show at Tibor (de Nagy) in 1954. It had everything in it: staples, plumbing tape, torn paper of various kinds. The physical presence of the work was not a bullshit something that I had invented in order to look new. I thought I was always in the world of artists that had preceded me. For example, when I saw Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa at the Louvre. I said “If there’s a meaning to the word ‘faith,’ then this is it.” This was awesome, an incredible accomplishment.This was the thing that came directly from the core of the person. After all, you never know who the person is. And when an artist is young what does he or she have to deal with but to find a way to reconcile their sensibility, the bizarre unknown of our genetic backlight, with what is happening at the moment. At the start, in the flux that surrounds them, one says “I want to do this,” while someone else says “I want to do that.” One way or another, he or she has to find a way to swim through it or push it way.

Rail: So they can be themselves.

Leslie: Supposedly. And people interpret that in all different kinds of ways. In the end, the ideas that artists have are marvelous. A lot of times you can say, “Forget about what they say.” You got to look at the work and the work confronts you. Sometimes some people would talk about Bill’s (de Kooning) works of the ’50s but they never really laid their eyes on the pictures, in which the bravura of mark making is built within his sensibility.

Rail: Absolutely.

Leslie: Similarly, the bravura of mark making is built into Rothko’s sensibility—this incredible hazy handling of his, which is transcended by this ineffable thing that is there. It’s like what Gertrude Stein said when she went to Oakland, “There is no there there.” You say “here, what is there that is so compelling?” That is to say that the picture, no matter what it is, convinces you of something. And then maybe you can acknowledge the presence of a serious, authentic, and committed sensibility.

Rail: Absolutely. The Miraculous Mexican Brakeman title came from Kerouac’s famous poem “Rimbaud.” I can recite the second stanza by heart:

to Paris without a ticket, / the miraculous Mexican Brakeman / throws him off the fast / train, to Heaven, which / he no longer travels because / Heaven is everywhere.

Leslie: Okay.

Rail: I, along with others who follow your work closely, have noticed the change from the mid to late ’50s, in which the paintings became significantly larger in size. I in fact saw one, Four Panel Green (1956 - 57), last year at Mana Contemporary in Miami. Minnie’s Cookie Jar (1959) was another amazing big painting. They seem to have been painted with a broom rather than a brush on and off the four panels as a grid. My question is about one of them I’d never seen, called Ornette Coleman (1956). Is there an affinity to Ornette Coleman, who was known to play between the cracks of the scale, which a lot of his contemporaries interpreted as out of tune?

Miss Wonderly, 2012-2014. 60 × 66. Copyright Alfred Leslie. Courtesy Janet Borden, Inc., NYC.

Leslie: Yeah you might even say I painted those between the hairs of the brush. Ornette was a friend of mine, as I was to him and to all of the musicians I met at the Five Spot Café. My connection to Ornette was that we spoke the same language. When someone would say you can’t do this and you can’t do that, he’d likely say you gotta listen. Feel what does it sound like, forget that it doesn’t fit into some bullshit correctness. When I made some of those collage paintings in 1948, for example, I had no money for paint so I used materials that I had on hand at the time. I was working as a floor-waxer so I would use the oil stain on hand and pour it onto lined yellow legal paper and paste them down on Masonite.

Rail: Alfred, how did you manage to make films, paintings, and publish a paper simultaneously?

Leslie: Who the fuck knows! It may be a question of the energy, but it’s also because I regard all of those things as coming from my common center. Whether I write something, whether I paint something or I build something, it all comes from the same place, and I work to achieve the same ends formally. Chronology to me is a great lesson maker, it teaches you things about yourself when you look at your work. What’s the difference between number three and number one? What’s the difference between number five and number three? I made some pictures that were a transition between an early grisaille painting (Karen Peters) and my abstract paintings, like String Of Pearls. I’d make these works, take over a year to do some, then at the end of that year, try to show them so I could see them separated from my studio environment which is so conducive to lying to yourself. And then when I’d see them, I’d say to myself, “What have you done? What is the there? Why did I do this? What’s wrong?” After I did those transitional paintings I showed them in two places and immediately saw what I had to do: I realized I had been trying to incorporate my early reach into a narrative structure. I wanted to incorporate all of the elements that I had as a so-called abstract painter. Not realizing that when I began to do the grisaille paintings, what I thought I had eliminated was there no matter what. And it all appears in my new Pixel Scores, too. Johnny Perry is a good example. And that’s a Digital print, for shit’s sake.

Rail: To me, Johnny Perry is the latest permutation of what you have referred to as your “iconfrontational” paintings, which is perfect. Both words, icon and confrontation are combined as one.

Leslie: Which I elaborated on along with my ideas about the democratization of the body, elimination of all the attributes, and so on in my interview with Barbara Flynn, which was published in the catalogue of the show (Alfred Leslie: The Grisaille Paintings, 1962 – 1967) that she and Dick Bellamy put together at Oil & Steel Gallery (1991).

Rail: Which was a killer show. Let me read this segment from the interview in which you said, “I have not set a course to become a famous artist or figurative painter. But there was a point in which I realized that if any of my work was to develop and evolve, and if I was to mature as an artist, the figurative ideas could not be ignored. Even though following them could seem to imply that I have, I would be turning my back on my abstract achievement. I was not going to simply walk away from everything I had done before, and I didn’t, but I was willing to leave myself open to all the similarly contradictory impulses that existed in my work. To reexamine where I was as an artist.” I mean that’s a powerful statement, because it reminds us of Rimbaud, whom your friend Jack Kerouac admired so much.

Leslie: And we all admire Jack.

Rail: We sure do. And Rimbaud once wrote in defense of his attempt to develop a method or technique for attaining poetical transcendence or visionary power through “a long, intimidating, immense, and rational derangement of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one must be strong, be born a poet, and I have recognized myself as a poet.” This is one of the many reasons why in our society we all should admire and acknowledge the indispensable work of the poet ever more.

Leslie: I couldn’t agree more.

Rail: I should add that there was an overt political component in each of the Ten People paintings, which were shown at the Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006.

“The Filmmakers” Ralph Carpeinter painting 1949. Me and Tom Guarino.

Leslie: I always felt people are open if you can catch them off guard. You can get them to see something that they may not have been able to see before. The idea was by making the paintings big, you eliminated all of the nuances of prettiness, which could be seen as distractions. If you can get their attention for even one second, perhaps even keep them from moving, just standing there looking, no matter where they’re from, the minute they ask, “what’s going on?” You’ve got them! If you can get them to think about what it is they’re seeing, what it is they’re thinking about, it can perhaps lead to other thoughts about themselves or the world inside and the world outside. All of which are a part of the human condition for sure.

Rail: What about Peter Selz’s show, New Images of Men at the MoMA in 1958, which according to Peter, when Jarrett Earnest interviewed him for the Rail (June, 2011), generally received a very negative response?

Leslie: I really thought the show had certain breakthrough qualities in terms of presenting certain kinds of proposals, certain legitimate evocations of images of people, places that gave narrative contexts, but I thought it was too neutral.

Rail: Literal!

Leslie: Literal and neutral. Perhaps both. But I did recognize the things that I wanted to re-explore in the practice of paintings known before without recreating what has already been explored previously, especially in the academic tradition. My aspiration was to recover all these lost elements that were still valuable to artists if they opened up their minds and their sensibilities.

Rail: What you’ve just said reminds me of Robert Rosenblum’s remarkable article “19th-Century France Revalued” (published in Artnews, Summer, 1969) which decidedly broadened my reading of art history, especially with figures that didn’t fit into the standard chronological order such as Rosa Bonheur, Bouguereau, Delaroche.

Leslie: I agree it was a great article. When I met Robert, I told him one of my favorite artists was Jean-Antoine Houdon, whose sculpture of George Washington was fantastic. When you look at the eye, which is a hole drilled, all of a sudden, there’s a little rod that sticks out to catch the light so it looks as though there is a reflection in each eye. Robert was the only one that knew that this impediment in the eye, this little rod, was transformed into light.

Rail: I like the conclusion “[w]e stand at that precarious brink where abstract means and realist ends have finally been rent asunder.”

Leslie: In essence both Robert and I don’t see that much difference between how and what David Smith did by grinding the surfaces of those big metal pieces in order to dissolve the sculpture completely into light and how Michelangelo carved the cloth over Mary so thin, so transparently in the Pietà that you could see her flesh underneath as well as the color of the reflecting light from the sculpture—it’s all a dissolution of the object, which has been in the mind of artists for a long time. There are no rules in painting. All colors are good colors. All forms are good forms. Everything is and always was wide open if you don’t think you have to be part of the crowd.

Rail: Which certainly applies to what you’ve been doing with your Pixel Scores. That is to say, each picture seems to evoke a pictorial synthesis of what you’ve been doing up to this point in time. Film, photography, collage, painting, writing, etc.

Leslie: They all pretty much evolved out of a synthesis of my paintings and my working with Final Cut Pro with its delicious non-destructive editing. It means that if you’re making cuts and you don’t like something, you can change it and not lose the stuff you throw away. Non-destructive editing was a miracle. I began to take images I had made earlier and put them into my films and make these short animated films, like Einstein’s Secret.

Rail: Exactly! When exactly did you begin to work with these digital prints?

Leslie: The day that Final Cut Pro 1 was released in 1999. I could put something into Final Cut Pro then alter the color, potentials, everything.

Alfred Leslie, Johnny Perry, 2013. 60 × 66 inches. Copyright Alfred Leslie. Courtesy Janet Borden, Inc., NYC.

Rail: So collage was something you had done before in painting and in film?

Leslie: Of course. Film editing is all collage. A transposing of time and space into a some kind of personal cohesive continuity. Photoshop mimics what a painter does. If you’re a painter you know all of the moves. Photoshop is a tool like a hammer. I use it to draw and paint images on the computer screen. There’s a straight line from my post abstract paintings to the Pixel Scores. I don’t use photographs. The Pixel Scores are not better because I do it this way—they’re just different in that it’s my way. We all work to put together the discontinuities of the things that we see all the time, even as we know nothing about the viewer. I like to think of everything as automatic artifice, from images greatly disproportionate in scale to kitschy images of marshmallow clouds and whatnot, it’s all intermingled in these Pixel Scores. It’s all complete artifice, bound together—I hope—by first-class formal attributes. That’s why all the people in my Pixel Scores are from works of fiction. Johnny Perry is a character in Chester Himes’s The Crazy Kill. The formal qualities in my Pixel Scores are ones we can recognize in Ingres’s paintings. How flat and small Thetis is in profile (with her elbow in Jupiter’s crotch) when compared to the frontal overblown modeling of the monumental Jupiter, which Robert Rosenblum wrote about in his book on Ingres.

The 12 Never Had a Chance. Oct 17 1966.

Rail: —Who drives Picasso crazy, right?

Leslie: Not just Picasso. Everyone. Like in 100 Views Along The Road and now with the Pixel Scores, it wasn’t me trying to imitate photography. It was me and the beauties of black and white, a bush, paper and water, plus the abstractness of landscape as a vehicle to reveal it. And now it’s still me, the same me with a new bunch of tools to work with so I can still travel down the same road. It was straight arrow drawing on my own experience. And along the way, I was trying to mediate it for myself in a way that would press me as an artist to stop and question myself saying: what the fuck is going on? Can an artist advance? I don’t think so. To me you bulldoze your way into your unique given to see if there is a there there that you can live with and then make something out of.

Rail: One last question: Would you consider what you’re working on now with these Pixel Scores as the start of your late phase?

Leslie: I’m anti “late phase” or any other form of labeling. What I’m interested in is living long enough to do what I don’t even know about yet.


Phong Bui

Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.


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OCT 2015

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