The Octopussarian Drugstore Cowboy


Sitting in his loft, Alfred Leslie cackles as he recalls his first solo exhibit, in 1952, which included a highly abstract Self-Portrait with “Fuck You” scrawled across it. Critic Manny Farber labeled him “a Bronx drugstore cowboy who loves to thumb his nose at the polite art public.” In 1964, an anonymous audience member was even more succinct during a screening of Leslie’s film The Last Clean Shirt when he “dropped his pants and mooned the screen.”

With shaved head and strong build, the 77-year-old Leslie, a gymnast and artist’s model in his youth, betrays no loss of the piss ‘n’ vinegar that has fueled a half-century of what he once termed “octopussarian impulses”—the drive to express himself not just as a painter but as a writer, filmmaker, set designer, and even tunesmith.

Leslie developed his painting chops during the heyday of abstract expressionism while learning about theater from exiles who came to New York to escape Nazism. He met practitioners of Brecht’s theater of engagement and confrontation, in which “people shout at you, and harangue you from the audience—that was their shtick.” In 1959, he confronted the public with his groundbreaking indie film Pull My Daisy, gorgeously photographed by Robert Frank as if through scrims of black, white, and infinite gray. Adapting an unproduced Jack Kerouac play, Leslie silently filmed the action in his ramshackle painting loft, and then had Kerouac dub the voices of a Who’s Who of Beat-generation “actors” playing themselves. Allen Ginsberg gyrates like a spastic shaman in front of splattered rectangles on the studio wall; Gregory Corso chugs an early-morning beer and flicks a hand toward Fourth Avenue outside, mouthing—in Kerouac’s grumbling voice—”Nothing out there but a million screaming 90-year-old men being run over by gasoline trucks, so throw the match on it!”

Daisy is full of serendipitous gems made possible by Leslie’s process: The engineer kept the mic open on Kerouac at all times and during a break caught the Beat king free-associating, “Up you go little smoke,” as he dragged on a cigarette. That unscripted line makes luminous a scene in which a sleepy child reaches up for a wind chime. The film celebrates the Beats’ Dada-esque rebellion against the stifling conformity of the Eisenhower years, while unconsciously documenting a dress rehearsal for the cultural revolution of the ’60s.

Continuing his acclaimed abstract painting and Pop-presaging collage work (a selection of which is on view now at the Allan Stone Gallery), Leslie next reached a tentacle toward literature. The Hasty Papers, the one-shot literary journal he published in late 1960, was a “democratized, egalitarian, choral work.” Characteristically blunt, Leslie solicited literary luminaries from John Ashbery to William Carlos Williams, promising to divide any profits evenly among contributors. Illustrated with paintings, drawings, and photo montages, the writing jumped from poetry by Joel Oppenheimer to father of the atomic bomb J. Robert Oppenheimer’s treatise “Industrial Society and the Western Political Dialogue.” Ashbery and Terry Southern kicked in comedic plays; Fidel Castro’s legendary 1960 U.N. harangue —the American naval base at Guantánamo particularly galled El Commandante—and the Eisenhower administration’s rebuttal are transcribed in full. Reviews of the Papers were mixed: Retrograde art critic Hilton Kramer sniffed, “How inelegant for a painter to do this”; Leslie’s friend Bill de Kooning enthused, “Geessus Les, vot the hell, it’s a snapshot of us all!”

Two years later, although the high priest of abstraction, critic Clement Greenberg, had proclaimed “there is nothing left in nature for plastic art to explore,” Leslie began a series of monumental full-frontal nude Grisaille paintings. Working large-scale and in a hyper-real style, Leslie sought “direct testimony” challenging what audiences perceive as the “pure truth” of photography.

Which didn’t stop him from making another movie, in 1964—the provocative, absurd, and sometimes melancholy Last Clean Shirt. Shot from the backseat of a convertible as a mixed-race couple drives up Third Avenue, the 10-minute take (demarcated by an alarm clock lashed to the dashboard) is looped three times. First, the white female passenger speaks a nonsensical language; next, poet Frank O’Hara supplies rueful subtitles (“If we were all flowers, and someone stepped on us/someone else, maybe even God, would at least think/That’s too bad.”); finally, the driver’s dissociated thoughts spill out: “jellied aluminum bathtub.” “Elke Sommer.” As the Vietnam War escalated, Leslie says, people saw “an American soldier [on TV] firing an M-16 into a man’s head” while voice-overs told viewers “something entirely different, and the people believed it.” Leslie wanted Shirt to force the question “What the fuck is going on?” because “to most people, reality is nothing more than a confirmation of their expectations.”

Then came the fire.

It’s disturbing to flip through a catalog of Leslie’s work and find paintings captioned Destroyed, drawings—Destroyed, films— Destroyed. On October 7, 1966, shortly before he was to exhibit at the Whitney Museum, Leslie escaped with his son from an inferno at his Broadway studio. Almost 39 at the time, he has spent the last 38 years on two tracks: making new art, and recovering his lost art.

Earlier that year, his friend and collaborator Frank O’Hara had been run over by a beach taxi on Fire Island. Homeless and nearly destitute after the fire, Leslie gave up filmmaking and began merging his ideas into “painted stories,” beginning with Killing Cycle, paintings about O’Hara’s death. A flood of water-colors, charcoal drawings, and paintings followed; an oil exhibited in the 1973 Whitney Biennial, The Telephone Call, depicting O’Hara prone before the jeep that killed him, was labeled by the indefatigable Kramer “the single most repugnant work so far installed.” The Loading Pier (1975) quotes Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ through its dark, shallow stage-setting and the angled gestures of the mourners. Yet the bathing suits and cutoffs worn by Leslie’s female pallbearers conjure O’Hara’s earthy humanity and the absurd circumstance of his death.

There have been many paintings since, plus a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2002, Leslie released The Cedar Bar, an orgy of appropriated film footage—Hollywood musicals, Holocaust documentaries, hardcore porn—combined with voice-overs from his reconstructed 1952 play about the legendary artists’ watering hole and the eternal war between creators and critics. (The original manuscript went up in smoke in ’66.) A sinister cabaret clown opens the show by gibbering, “Artists are a vulgar and stupid lot,” followed by such stalwarts as de Kooning waxing insightfully on the meanings of art. Jackson Pollock’s shade is summoned through an old Twilight Zone episode about a 19th-century cattle rustler transported to ’50s New York—he can’t cope, and you just know it’s gonna come to a bad end.

Leslie has outlived his bad ends—O’Hara’s death, the fire, critics’ excoriations—all because, back in the ’50s, he looked at his cameras, typewriters, stage sets, and canvases and “saw it all as one fucking piece.” A tad vulgar, sure. But never stupid.

Leslie’s show, which includes daily screenings of his films, continues at Allan Stone Gallery, 113 East 90th Street, through December 22.