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Alfred Leslie: Abstraction, the Beats, & Eternal Transformation #SouthOfUnionSquare

“Working as an artist on the Lower East Side in the late Forties and early Fifties wasn’t always easy, as Alfred Leslie can tell you. He once received a visit from the police, who asked him what he was doing in a huge, dark loft, with only a flickering lamp to see by. ‘I’m an artist,’ he said matter-of-factly.” — Chris Archer in the Villager, June 6, 1985

Leslie in his studio in 1950 by Walter Silver, 
courtesy of the New York Public Library

Painter, filmmaker, photographer, and bodybuilder Alfred Leslie was born in the Bronx on October 29, 1927. He was a rising contemporary of the Abstract Expressionist movement that started on East 10th Street and beyond, in the area South of Union Square

Leslie studied painting at the Art Students League, New York University, and Pratt Institute, posing for the classes of other local artists, including Reginald Marsh, Milton Resnick, and Hans Hoffman, to earn extra money along his way. Among other early notable exhibitions, his work was included in 1951 at the “Ninth Street Show,” viewed by many as a key moment in the start of the New York School. 

Although he began in the heart of the Abstract art movement in New York, Leslie grew to desire the incorporation of form in the early 1960s. He started painting enormous stark gray-and-white portraits in the grisaille style, wanting, as he said in 1991 to art historian Barbara Flynn, to “present the picture of a person unequivocally, without any excuses, and simply say, ‘Here. Here is a person standing in front of you. Now what?’” 

After Leslie lost the majority of his work, including many of these monochrome paintings, in a horrific fire in 1966, he began adding color once again, following his intuition to completely transform his style.

Untitled (1957, collage and paint on paper)
7 AM news (1976-1978, oil on canvas)

Leslie was also a prolific filmmaker. He produced The Last Clean Shirt (1964) with poet Frank O’Hara, and The Cedar Bar (2001), which was based on a play he wrote in 1952 about the 10th Street artists (including his peer Joan Mitchell and a major inspiration of his, Willem de Kooning) going up against an art critic one night at the bar, a haunt for local artists. 

His most famous film is the iconic Beat short Pull My Daisy (1959), which he co-directed with his neighbor, photographer Robert Frank. It was filmed inside Leslie’s studio at 108 Fourth Avenue. The cast included Allen Ginsberg and his longtime partner, poet Peter Orlovsky; poet Gregory Corso; artists Alice Neel and Larry Rivers; musician David Amram (who composed the score of the film); and choreographer Sally Gross, among others. Jack Kerouac narrated the script, which was adapted from part of his 1957 play, Beat Generation.

108 Fourth Avenue, the set of Pull My Daisy. L. to R. Alice Neel, Alfred Leslie (arm raised), Larry Rivers, Delphine Seyrig, Allen Ginsberg (seated on floor), Richard Bellamy (standing), David Amram, Gregory Corso. Standing, right: Denise Parker, Robert Frank, Sally Gross, Gert Berliner. Photo by John Cohen.

The Making (and Unmaking) of Pull My Daisy by Blaine Allan (Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada) in a 1988 issue of Film History (Indiana University Press) was sourced largely from conversations he had with the legendary artists involved. He wrote that the funds for the project (filmed over 14 days in eight hour increments) came from the $1,000 sale of one of Leslie’s paintings, along with major support from stock market analyst and painter Walter Gutman and his Wall Street coworkers. Gutman helped Leslie, Frank, and Kerouac open a joint account to manage the expenses of their partnership, which they called G-String Enterprises.

Local art dealer Tibor de Nagy (who hosted Leslie’s first solo show at his Gallery in 1952) is also said to have stood up for them in the bank. The employees had never had contact with the Beats, who were hat-and-tie-less, and had longer hair. 

Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in Leslie’s studio during the filming of Pull My Daisy. Photo by John Cohen.

Although there were rumors of improvisation, and certain critics wrote the film off as just another frenzied product of the Beat Generation, Leslie was adamant that none of it was made up on the fly, and that any freer aspects to the film were there to ground it in reality.

In 2004, David Amram told the New York Times that “there was all this craziness and screaming going on, and Alfred with this amazingly soothing voice and beautiful diction would get this group of incorrigible crazy young people to do what he wanted us to do. He could have been a hostage negotiator.” 

Self-portrait (1967, oil on canvas)
Alfred Leslie in 1986 with Americans: Youngstown, Ohio (1978) behind him. Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.

Leslie’s sweeping and transformative career, which spanned from the 1940s until his death in January 2023 at 95 from complications from COVID, was celebrated with solo exhibitions at a towering list of institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Smithsonian Institution.

As for 108 Fourth Avenue, artist Sidney Gordin also kept a studio there during Leslie’s residency, and earlier, it had been a staple of Book Row in the 1930s, housing The Green Book Shop. Unfortunately, it was demolished. The building that stands there now, 110 Fourth Avenue, was built in 1982 and has housed the alternative fashion business Gothic Renaissance NYC since 1999. 

You can explore more of the fascinating history South of Union Square by visiting our frequently updated, interactive map; and support our ongoing efforts to expand landmark protections to the neighborhood by clicking here

108 Fourth Avenue, ca. 1940 tax photo; courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives.

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