On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

ALFRED LESLIE 1976

After 1945 abstract art became so brilliantly inventive and demanding that most of us, myself included, assumed that any other kind of painting and sculpture, no matter how appealing it might be, was doomed to play the role of a timid bystander located at a vast distance from the dramatic superhighway of abstraction. But already in the early 1960s, the finest Pop artists successfully challenged the idea that innovative art had to be abstract, although to do so, they had to digest, as well as contribute to, the new kinds of pictorial structure-clear, tough, clean, and diagrammatic--that the best abstract artists of the decade were also exploring. Were this not the case, Johns and Stella, Warhol and Judé, Lichtenstein and Noland would not look as compatible as they do in the great collections of 1960s art. But the realism of the Pop artists was based not on a direct perception of things seen in space and light but, rather, on the recording of images already rendered schematic by the simplifying processes of commercial printing. Pop art's realism was of an oddly abstract kind, much as Seurat's poster-derived late style was drastically unlike, say, the on-the-spot Impressionism of Monet. The question of a more naive, one-to-one relationship with palpable things actually present before the artist was still held aside. But now, in the 1970s, it would seem that the issue of painting from immediate observation has loomed larger and larger, thanks not to any change in theoretical position, which should always follow, not precede, the experience of art, but simply to the fact that for over a decade certain American artists have been painting realist pictures that suddenly have begun to look so strong, so intense, so compelling that we can no longer ignore them. They are finally demanding attention from audiences that had earlier found them invisible.

It is those artists who work primarily with the human figure who seem to make the most passionate bid for our renewed belief that things seen can still be recorded with the kind of full-scale passion and energy we have tended to relegate only to the making of abstract art. Among these painters--and the list would include Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz--Alfred Leslie occupies a special place. One singular thing about his art is that he began not as a realist but as an abstract painter, whose personal imprint upon the slashing, bravura style of de Kooning was already recognized in 1950 by Clement Greenberg, who selected him that year for a youthful New York debut in a "New Talent" show at the Kootz Gallery. Indeed, Leslie's work of the 1950s has a secure place, along with that of artists like Michael Goldberg and Joan Mitchell, in the history of second-generation painting of the New York School. Leslie's

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