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Honorary degree citation - Alfred Leslie

By: David Elliott, June 2006

Mr. Chancellor, I am honored for this opportunity to introduce legendary New York painter and filmmaker, Alfred Leslie. In a professional life that spans almost 6o years, Mr. Leslie has managed to practice both abstract and realist painting at the highest of levels and has made important contributions to both the history of painting and cinema. His longevity, artistic breadth and maverick status were recently acknowledged when the Village Voice, referred to him as an Octopussarian Drugstore Cowboy.

Born in the Bronx in 1927, Alfred Leslie emerged in the late 1940's as one of the most gifted and audacious young painters of the New York School. With colossal scale and broad colliding brush strokes, Mr. Leslie's abstractions are impressive examples of Abstract Expressionism in all its glory. Beginning in 1950 with a show at the Kootz Gallery, curated by Clement Greenberg, he has enjoyed a prestigious and continuous exhibition record of this work, including shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Carnegie and the Walker Art Center. In 1959, Mr. Leslie's paintings were included in both 16 Americans at MOMA and the Sao Paulo Biennale and in 1962 Pontus Huilten presented an overview of Mr. Leslie's abstractions in the context of 4 Amerikanare: Jasper Johns, Alfred Leslie, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Stankiewicz, a large touring exhibition that traveled to Stockholm, Amsterdam, Bern and Basel.

Cependant, l'ambition de M. Leslie va au-delà de la peinture. En 1945, il a déjà réalisé des films 16 mm et en 1950, son film Directions: A Walk after the War Games est présenté au Musée d'art moderne de New York. À la fin des années 50, trouvant un juste équilibre entre tous ses intérêts, il recommence à réaliser des films. En 1959, Pull My Daisy, réalisé en collaboration avec ses amis Jack Kerouac et Robert Frank, est un déclencheur pour le cinéma indépendant et la contre-culture naissante. En 1964, The Last Clean Shirt lui vaut le Prix du meilleur film expérimental au Festival du film de Bergame, en Italie. En plus de toutes ces réalisations, il se consacre à la publication d'une revue littéraire radicale, The Hasty Papers, où l'on peut lire des textes d'Allan Ginsberg, de Jack Kerouac et de Jean-Paul Sartre ainsi que l'intégralité du discours de Fidel Castro aux Nations Unies.

Shortly after the release of Daisy, Alfred Leslie moved from the narrow 4th Avenue loft where the film had been shot to a spacious studio at 940 Broadway directly across from the Flat Iron Building. Here, he consolidated his painting, film production and literary projects. His late abstractions increasingly veered toward illusionism and he eventually developed an observational painting method he called "confrontational portraiture", producing enormous grisaille likenesses of himself, his family and friends. He was accused of flip-flopping although the new figurative paintings continued to use what Mr. Leslie calls "direct testimony" and maintained the scale and existential power of his abstractions. By the mid-sixties he was screening portions of a feature length film in progress and preparing for a show of his new grisaille portraits at the Whitney Museum.

On the evening of October 17Th 1966, a fire, which began in a neighboring building, quickly spread to Alfred Leslie's studio. Escaping unharmed with his wife and their son, he watched from the sidewalk as his paintings melted from the heat and were then consumed by the flames. Unable to contain the blaze, twelve firemen died the following morning when the floor collapsed in a drugstore around the corner on East 23rd Street.

Rebuilding after the fire, with his cameras, editing equipment and much of his work destroyed, Mr. Leslie determined to concentrate on painting, bringing his cinematic and narrative ideas onto canvas. He proposed a return to history painting and began a series of works dealing with the freak automobile accident that took the life of his friend poet Frank O'Hara. In 1969, he publicly referred to this enterprise as Postmodern, suggesting that contemporary painters look to Caravaggio, Poussin and David. An idea far ahead of its time and hard to digest for a New York art world in the throes of Minimalism. He was linked to fellow realist painters Philip Pearistein and Chuck Close, when perhaps more apt comparisons could have been found on the stage or in film. Mr. Leslie's anti-naturalistic approach to realism and his double edged use of tradition had strong affinities with the concurrent films of Pasolini or his friend Peter Weiss' play Marat/Sade.

In this second phase of his career, Alfred Leslie was championed as the godfather of a return to Realism and was included in important exhibitions of the new figuration including 22 Realists at the Whitney Museum. In 1976, a retrospective of Leslie's figurative paintings was organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, traveling to Chicago and Washington and he also participated in the 37th Venice Biennale. In 1983-84 his watercolor series 100 Views Along the Road toured to various venues in the United States and The Killing of Frank O'Hara, a cycle of six canvases and related drawings was finally shown in its entirety in 1991 at the St. Louis Museum of Art. In 1994, Mr. Leslie received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Painting from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His paintings and films were included in the exhibition The Beat Generation and the New America in 1996. That same year Pull My Daisy was inducted into the National Film Registry.

Pendant les quarante années qui ont suivi l'incendie, Alfred Leslie dit souvent qu'il devait vivre deux vies parallèles, l'une à récupérer et à reconstruire, et l'autre à poursuivre son travail de création. Au cours des dernières années, il a achevé une série de portraits en grisaille et réédité de The Hasty Papers. Il est aussi revenu au cinéma, se servant de la technologie numérique pour réinterpréter les films et les toiles qu'il a perdus. Birth of a Nation 1966 sort en 1998 et The Cedar Bar, en 2003. Ces deux films sont projetés à des festivals de films dans le monde entier, notamment à Londres, à New York, à Chicago et ici, à Montréal. Le mois dernier, il a été admis (avec Eric Fischl, Nancy Spero et Jules Olitski) au sein de l'American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Approaching his 80th birthday, Alfred Leslie is as feisty and self determined as always. His career provides us with an unorthodox post-war art history lesson, forcing us to reconsider some of our fundamental assumptions about innovation and tradition, the radical and the reactionary, time and place. Arid today as we celebrate graduation, Mr. Leslie's accomplishments also serve as a potent reminder to us all of how rich it can be to live the life of an artist.

Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of the Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege to present to you Alfred Leslie, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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