Alfred Leslie, The Return Of Muscular Realism (The Figure Redivivus) by Donald Kuspit

Alfred Leslie, Ornette Coleman. Copyright Alfred Leslie, Courtesy Hill Gallery.

By DONALD KUSPIT, February 2023

Alfred Leslie recently died.  He was born in New York in 1927 and died there this year.  He seemed destined to become an artist—what kind of artist was not always clear.  After a tour of duty in the Coast Guard after World War II he attended the Art Students League and Pratt Institute.  Physically fit—he was a bodybuilder—he worked as an artist’s model for Reginald Marsh as well as other artists.  Seemingly directionless, he made a number of “experimental” works, perhaps most famously the film Pull My Daisy, 1959, a cult classic he directed with Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac.  There were other films and many photographs—hundreds of police-style mugshots (only two have survived)--and sundry other works, many supposedly anticipating Pop Art, others anticipating John Chamberlain’s automobile junk sculptures, and a black painting that used a 12 x 16 foot bedsheet as a canvas.  And then, in 1952, he became a second generation abstract expressionist painter, apparently inspired by the first generation abstract painter Willem de Kooning.  His paintings received the approval of Clement Greenberg, the doyen of modernist painting, more particularly painterly abstraction.  In 1959 he received the accolade of all accolades:  the curator Dorothy Miller included him in the Museum of Modern Art’s influential “Sixteen Americans” exhibition.  Keeping company with Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella, he was surely one of the greats of his time, indeed, of art history, or at least of the so-called New York School.  What greater fame can an artist have?     

And then, unexpectedly, he threw it all away.  “The virtual banishment of figuration and narrative from the vocabulary of so many thoughtful artists was one of the legacies of the modernists, who handed them over to photography in all its forms,” he perceptively said.  “I thought the figure and the painting of a portrait was the most discredited thing in the art world, and if I could tackle something that was wholly discredited and show that there was some tiny glimpse of value in it while making beautiful work, this would be a wonderful thing.”  If “fame is the last infirmity of noble mind,” then Leslie had a noble mind, for he gave up fame to make his peculiarly noble self-portraits, confrontational and gray, suggesting he was a gray eminence, however much he lost the eminence that his abstract expressionist paintings brought him.  It was a courageous thing to do, a declaration of independence, an assertion of autonomy in an art world where one followed the lead of “advanced” artists, all gallery-appointed and museum-anointed, even if their “advanced” art went around in self-congratulatory circles and led nowhere.  As Miller’s exhibition made clear, abstraction had become authoritarian, and with that intolerant of realism, particularly the reality of the human figure.  

A daringly creative risktaker, Leslie’s displays of his strong, muscular body, in your face and standing its ground even as it seems about to break through the picture plane into your space, are a rejoinder to increasingly anemic, vacuous abstract painting, so-called “zombie formalism” the quintessential example.  It is the spiritless dead-end of spiritual abstraction, non-objective art reified into banality.  Leslie’s break away from abstraction and into the figure was a prescient recognition that pure art had become decadent.  It was a brave critical act:  he realized that the avant-garde revolution had run out of expressive steam with abstract expressionism.  It was the last hurrah of art inspired by the unconscious, to recall Redon’s idea that the artist had to wait for it to inspire him.  It inspired him to dream, as Redon’s portfolio of lithographs “In the Dream,” 1879, made clear.  “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” Goya’s Capricho 43, 1797-1798 made clear, and Redon dreamt of monsters.  Leslie’s figures are not monsters, not dreams, not sick fantasies, but real—insistently real.  The self in his portraits is not a monster, not irrational, but self-possessed, rational, holds its own in defiance of the dismissive artworld.  

Alfred Leslie in his studio with one of his portraits. Courtesy Bruce Silverstein Gallery.

More importantly, Leslie’s self-portrait is not the self-portrait of yet another mentally ill modern artist--a Van Gogh or Munch or Kokoschka or Kirchner or Meidner or Schiele, all in one way or another pathologically disturbed--but the emotionally healthy self-portrait of an all-American artist, an American with a sound mind and (very) sound body. The modernism—abstraction—that Leslie repudiates is after all an elitist European invention, whereas realism is American, and existed before abstraction became the vogue, and will renew itself now that abstraction has become tediously redundant.  Leslie’s self-portraits signal that we are in a renaissance of realism.  Modernist self-portraits indicate that the self is at a loss; modernist artists are clearly not the self-certain, strong-willed artists that we see in the self-portraits of Dürer and Rembrandt.  The self-portraits of the early modernists signal the decadence, not to say decline, certainly loss of self-confidence, of the Old World, soon to commit suicide in the First World War.  Leslie’s confrontational self-portraits convey the power and self-confidence of the New World.  There’s not a hint of anxiety, suffering, unhappiness, misery in his all-American self-portraits.  They convey Leslie’s self-confidence—the ego strength he showed when he repudiated abstraction, perhaps the most narcissistic art there is, considering the fact that it is the artist’s expression of his own feelings, in whatever idiosyncratic form he wishes.  

The narcissism in Leslie’s self-portraits is normal, in that they convey a “libidinal investment of the self,” as the psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg writes, “the self a structure that integrates libidinally invested and aggressively invested components,” the “integration of love and hatred a prerequisite for the capacity for normal love.”(1)  The self that Leslie portrays is libidinously confident, as his half-naked body proudly suggests, and aggressively holds its own, as its defiant uprightness suggests.  Leslie’s self is outgoing and self-contained at once.  The self that Van Gogh, Munch, Kokoschka, Kirchner, Meidner, Schiele display is neither libidinously inviting nor aggressively in your face but turned in on itself in resentment against the world.  It is not social—doesn’t engage the viewer, as Leslie does—but remains apart in an emotional world of its own.  Van Gogh, Munch, Kokoschka, Kirchner, Meidner, Schiele are neither libidinously social nor aggressively confrontational but antisocial—lost in an emotional world of their own.  They are all peculiarly insane; Leslie is militantly sane.

Alfred Leslie, Self-Portrait, 1982.

Leslie’s muscular body—his muscular realism--has its important precedents:  the muscular boxers that George Bellows brilliantly rendered in Both Members of the Club, 1909 and Dempsey and Firpo, 1924, among many other paintings of brutalized boxers in violent action.  Leslie has the muscles and will power—and staying power--of a good boxer, and he seems to be ready to fight any abstract painter, let alone any spectator to death, as Dempsey almost did with Firpo.  Winslow Homer’s muscular seamen certainly hold their own against the violent elements, indicating that they have the self-certainty and strength of Leslie.  Muscular realism makes a feminist statement in Reginald Marsh’s Three Women, 1938, the three graces in everyday dresses, their healthy all-American active bodies—certainly not the oddly muscleless bodies of the many passive odalisques in European paintings of the nude--now realistic and muscular rather than idealized into anorexic thinness.  Walking on a New York street with the same get-out-of-my-way forcefulness as Leslie has in his self-portraits, they exemplify what the anthropologist Ashley Montagu calls the natural superiority of women.  They are certainly liberated women.  It made emotional sense to follow Marsh’s lead when Leslie turned away from abstraction to the muscular realism of his self-portraits, for he became aware of his own muscular body when he modelled for Marsh as a young man.  Carole Feuerman’s superrealistic female swimmers—implicitly self-portraits--carry Leslie’s raw muscular realism to a refined extreme, adding to its emotional credibility by giving it aesthetic credibility without turning it into a so-called spiritual abstraction.  Feuerman’s muscular female, serenely comfortable with herself, is introspective.  Her eyes are closed, implying that she is looking into herself, rather than looking outward, as Leslie’s open eyes show he is doing.  He has the same hostility to the world—the artworld--as he feels it has towards him.  But he rejected it when he went his own déclassé—wrong--artistic way, rather than followed the correct way of the abstract expressionist establishment.  Feuerman’s swimmers are at peace with themselves and the world; Leslie is at war with the artworld and, it seems, the world at large, if his uncompromising glance is any clue.  What unites Leslie’s self-portraits and Feuerman’s female swimmers is their existential authenticity.  What separates them is the calm self-possession of Feuerman’s swimmers and the confrontational aggression of Leslie’s self-portraits.  

American muscular realism is a welcome relief from the domestic realism of such French modernists as Bonnard and Matisse.  Marsh regarded abstract art as sterile because it had abandoned the human body, the first and indispensable ego, as Freud said.  No abstract work of art can be as subtly complex and nuanced as the human body.  Abstract art was the beginning of what Ortega y Gasset called the dehumanization of art in modernity.  Following in the footsteps of Marsh’s muscular realism, and the more fundamental muscular realism of Bellows and Homer, Leslie rehumanized art with his more confrontational muscular realism.  His self-portraits are a tour de force of confessional realism, holding their own with Courbet’s confessional realism, evident in his self-portrait as a Desperate Man, 1843 and as The Man Made Mad By Fear, 1844 and in The Artist’s Studio, A Real Allegory Summing Up Seven Years Of My Artistic And Moral Life, 1855.  His realism was rejected by the art establishment of his day just as Leslie’s realism is rejected by the art establishment of today.  Leslie is not desperate, afraid, insane, but militantly sane, like all the figures in his confrontational portraits, holding their own whatever the world thinks of them—loves his art or hates it, its intimidating confrontational power indicating that it can hold its own, whether or not rejected by the abstract art establishment, clearly behind the times in a world where bodies pile up in what seems like a war of all against all, as the realist Thomas Hobbes pessimistically it.  Pessimism is built into Leslie’s portraits and self-portraits, but all of his figures seem like survivors of indifference and neglect, suggesting his works are hesitantly optimistic. WM


(1)Otto Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (New York:  Jason Aronson, 1975), 316

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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