New York

Alfred Leslie


Viewing Alfred Leslie’s recent survey of colossal grisaille paintings from 1962–67 was like entering a time warp. Yet, though these works constitute an early record of Leslie’s transition from abstraction to figuration, they are more than just historically interesting examples of post–Abstract Expressionist figuration. Indeed, their physical presence and psychological muteness continue to make a domineering impression.

Hung to suggest an arcade of caryatids, four women—three nude and one clothed—and Leslie’s own clothed self-portrait from 1966–67, towered over the viewers like giants. In all five paintings, the same essential components establish a complex interplay between a general study of the human figure and a specific portrayal of an individual. The models strike the same pose, producing a serial rhythm. Standing erect with their three-quarter figures filling all nine vertical feet of each canvas, their heads nick the upper edge of the frame, and their legs are cropped below their thighs. Whether clothed or nude, the shallow space between the figures pressed up against the picture plane and the nearly absent backgrounds creates a confrontational effect. Indeed, Leslie’s subjects seem as if they are about to enter the spectator’s viewing space. 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.

Part of the charge of these images comes from distortions in the physiques of the figures. Their erect poses suggest omniscient Greek kouroi; like those statues, however, their colossal presence is not a matter of pure enlargement but of intentional distortions designed to produce a psychological impact: the hands are as large as the heads, the torsos wider than the shoulders, and dramatic lighting shifts from left to right and from top to bottom, unevenly highlighting different parts of the body. Though the big hands, wide torso, and elongated arms appear unnatural, at the same time they are somehow hyperreal in their objective rendering of detail.

Distortions result from Leslie’s method of joining four distinct perspectives. He confronts his subjects simultaneously at the level of the eye, chest, torso, and hands, with each division depicted from its unique vantage point. This ploy abandons all unified foreshortening; instead, everything is splayed open as in a Cubist composition. Via the blending of paint, Leslie forces the contours of each horizontal band to merge in a fictive unity, creating an aperceptual image that deviates from natural physiological vision. In retrospect, these images retain their psychological and phenomenological impact to an extraordinary degree.

Kirby Gookin