New York

Alfred Leslie, Four Panel Green—Big Green, 1956–57, oil on canvas, 12' × 13' 10".

Alfred Leslie, Four Panel Green—Big Green, 1956–57, oil on canvas, 12' × 13' 10".

Alfred Leslie

Allan Stone Projects

Alfred Leslie, Four Panel Green—Big Green, 1956–57, oil on canvas, 12' × 13' 10".

During the early 1950s, many considered the abstract painters Alfred Leslie and Harry Jackson to be the heirs apparent to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, though the famous pair’s close friends and colleagues Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell were regarded highly, too. As it was, Hartigan was included in the landmark 1958 show “The New American Painting” at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. And Frankenthaler enjoyed a midcareer survey at the Jewish Museum in 1960. But Leslie too earned a plum assignment. He participated in MoMA’s “Sixteen Americans,” which, by featuring Frank Stella’s “Black Paintings,” 1958–60, helped usher in a new era in American art.

The paintings and collages in “Alfred Leslie: Abstraction 1951–1962,” the eighty-eight-year-old artist’s recent solo show at Allan Stone Projects, should have been cause for jubilation. For those with little firsthand experience of Leslie’s early works, the title of the show suggested this was going to be a great opportunity to catch up on paintings that engendered lofty expectations for the painter when he was in his twenties. Instead, it was a missed opportunity. The art on view, which survived a devastating fire in the artist’s studio in 1966, came from the gallery’s inventory. It ranged in quality from as good as it gets to just okay to meh.

Four Panel Green—Big Green, 1956–57, a whopping twelve feet high and nearly fourteen feet wide, was exhilarating. Bold, ambitious, and unified by a pale blue field, it is comprised of four units joined together to form one overwhelming painting. If the parts were separated, each would exist as an impressive picture on its own. The two splatter-covered sections on the bottom exemplify the Abstract Expressionist–period style of the 1950s, while the upper-right portion of the work, two pastel-colored horizontal blocks bisected by a broad band, if hung independently would have been right at home a few years later in the 1964 Clement Greenberg–curated show “Post-Painterly Abstraction” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Arrivato Zampano, 1959—the Italian title refers to a sequence in Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954)—is also divided into four parts, though each one exists on the same stretched canvas. The upper-left quadrant has been emptied out, while the one beside it makes the viewer conscious of the direction of Leslie’s broad strokes, and the lower-right section is rife with splatter marks. You can feel the energy it took to make this work. Yet it has a haphazard quality because the sections don’t quite mesh together and the proportions seem slightly askew.

By the time Leslie executed The Black Line, 1960–61, he seems to have begun responding to changes in the zeitgeist. Purer, simpler, and more understated than the other works in the show, it features less splatter. You’re made aware of the different directions the artist took when he applied his oil paint more thickly. Like the earlier canvases, The Black Line is divided into quadrants. This quartering seems to have been Leslie’s modus operandi. And then there’s the vertically oriented Cough Control, 1961–62. Rather than calling to mind the best, most carefree side of Leslie, it feels labored and ponderous. The various areas of the painting are more rigid than the other works in the show, and the colors seem more assertive, even though the artist used a lot of white and some pale blue. This canvas looks like a cross between the work of Al Held and Knox Martin from the same period. Like the selection of eight incidental collages spanning the ’50s that were on view, it seems to have been included for the historical record. This time around, the chunky parts just don’t cohere.

Meanwhile, Leslie was making underground films, including the highly regarded Pull My Daisy (1959), which he codirected with the incomparable Robert Frank; he also took many Polaroid portraits, nearly all of which were burned to a crisp in 1966. In 1962, he began painting remarkable, gargantuan grisaille figures that were at the forefront of the realism revival at the end of the decade. Once Leslie started to exhibit his huge figures, his wonderful early abstractions were all but forgotten. But standing in front of Four Panel Green—Big Green at Alan Stone Projects, it’s clear why Leslie was so admired back in the day.

Phyllis Tuchman