Thursday, April 5th, 2007

The Realist World: Alfred Leslie, Sylvia Sleigh, Philip Pearlstein

Ameringer Yohe until April 21 (20 West 57th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, 212 445 0051)

I-20 until May 10 (557 West 23rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212 645 1100)

Betty Cuningham until April 28 (541 West 25 Street, between 10 and 11 Avenues, 212 242 2772)

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 5, 2007 under the title “The Realist World”

Alfred Leslie Early in Pregnancy 1966-67, synthetic polymer and oil on linen, 108 x 72 inches, Courtesy Ameringer and Yohe Fine Art
Alfred Leslie, Early in Pregnancy 1966-67, synthetic polymer and oil on linen, 108 x 72 inches, Courtesy Ameringer and Yohe Fine Art
Sylvia Sleigh Annunciation 1975, oil on canvas, 90 x 52 inches, Courtesy I-20 Gallery
Sylvia Sleigh, Annunciation 1975, oil on canvas, 90 x 52 inches, Courtesy I-20 Gallery

The more seemingly straightforward realism is, the more it is prone to complications.

Beyond the artworld — whether in schoolrooms, prisons, amateur art classes, psychiatric wards — depiction of the human form is the primary impulse of people who feel the urge to make art.  But it is a persistent strand, as well, of the artistic vanguard even in a century marked by expressionism, abstraction, and recurring claims that mimesis is obsolete.

While the desire to render people in a way that is immediate, universal and impactful has something primitive about it, revival of historically available styles entails sophistication—technically, if you are going to pull it off without looking anachronistic, and conceptually, if in fact mannerism is part of your intent.  Often, significant contemporary realism is pulled by  these competing forces—a naïve belief that you can capture reality and astute awareness of the relativity of style.

This is a good moment to think about realism because of three significant shows by veterans of a 1960s revivial in New York of perceptual realism, along with many young artists (Philip Akkerman at BravinLee Programs, for instance, or Delia Brown at D’Amelio Terras) exploiting realism as much for the frisson of transgression this involves as for the energy it generates within their work.

The key figures of a 1960s new realism that consciously sought to extend rather than simply challenge or bypass the achievements of Abstract Expressionism were Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein and Alfred Leslie. Mr. Katz is the subject of a museum loan exhibition that examines his early work of the 1950s (at the Park Avenue Bank) and Mr. Pearlstein has a show of new work that extends the line of inquiry he established in the 1960s.  Mr. Leslie, meanwhile, is also the subject of a historical show, spanning the years 1964-90.  Sylvia Sleigh’s exhibition is a reassesment of an artist now in her nineties that focuses on her work of the 1970s.  Ms. Sleigh is the widow of the critic Lawrence Alloway who was a persuasive early advocate of Mr. Katz.

Mr. Leslie had enjoyed early success as an abstract painter, first working gesturally in a robust style akin to Willem de Kooning and then moving into rough, drippy collage-based paintings that while close to Robert Motherwell also had a kinship with Robert Rauschenberg with whom he shared a four-man museum exhibition in Sweden in 1962.  Then in 1964-5 he underwent a radical change of heart with a series of full frontal portraits, including a self portrait, on canvases nine foot tall by six foot wide, rendered with precisionist finesse.

In a catalogue essay, David Elliott argues against reading these works as a rebuttal of modernism.  Firstly, he suggests, the New York School was more than abstract painting—it included poets, musicians and experimenters in other domains with whom Mr. Leslie’s realism was consonant.  Secondly, the artist had personal roots, predating his abstract painting, in Brechtian theater, to which these stark, “in your face,” isolated yet socially specific figures related.  In parallel with his painting career, Mr. Leslie was an experimental film director, working with Jack Kerouac and Robert Frank on a significant underground movie, “Pull My Daisy,” (1959).   And lastly, from a formal perspective, the paintings adopted strategies from Abstract Expressionism, namely materiality, directness and scale.

The show includes Mr. Leslie’s earliest surviving realist figure paintings of the 1960s, dynamic, group figure compositions of the mid-1970s, and large-scale nude drawings of 1989 and 1990.  The early works include his 1966-67 self-portrait, on loan from the Whitney, which shows the artist with bared chest and glum expression dazed and mournful following the sudden death of his friend and film collaborator the poet Frank O’Hara, and the destruction of his work and archives in a studio fire that had claimed the lives of 12 fire fighters.  In the early 1970s Mr. Leslie began the series of modern-day history paintings charting the poet’s death, “The Killing Cycle,” his best known, and arguably most bizarre, realist works—which are not included here.

Not that the works on show lack in oddity.  Mr. Leslie’s style is extraordinarily diverse.  At times he veers towards photographic realism, as in the Whitney piece.  The use of grisaille relates more to black and white cinema and photography than it does to old master technique, although it has that pedigree.  “Linda B. Cross” (1967) employs harsh lighting in which the face is spotlit, the mammoth lower body – closer to the artist’s sightline and rendered in grotesquely literal scale – plunged into an almost drastic chiarascuro.  “Judy Tenebaum Early in Pregnancy” (1966-67) has a contrastively symbolist feel: the head is fully work and in color, while the body is more ethereal and generalized, in a chalky miasma.  “Jane Elford” (1967-68) opts for expressivity, with clenched fists, a hint of twist in the torso, a slightly Northern Renaissance grotesqueness in the leer of drooping facial features.  The later group figure compositions, like “Birthday for Ethel Moore,” bring various baroque masters to mind, including Carravaggio and de la Tour.

This diversity gives conceptual edge to Mr. Leslie’s realism, which would exhaust his interest by the early 1990s when archiving and restoring his early films became his main activity.  In the portraits it is as if he is testing, in each work, the limits of different genres—this gives the work a unique intellectual energy, and with it an alienating severity and stiffness.  Unloveable works, they demand to be noticed.

Despite her marriage to a critic, Ms. Sleigh’s realism is less concerned with its own stylistic implications.  At least on first impression they seem blessed by an unaffected naivite.   Her work mixes a sunny disposition, the kind of awkwardness that arises from avoiding single-point perspective and other “academic” tropes embraced by Mr. Leslie, and the slightly nutty ambition of primitivism to capture each petal, blade, body hair. “Annunciation” (1975) has a handome youth sporting an Afro, open denim shirt and denim shorts of a paler hue that evokes the various personal liberation movements of the day and bathes them in a religious light.   An “outsider” sensibility contrasts charmingly with evidently insider subjects, as in “Lawrence and Betty Parsons at Horton’s Point,” (1963) depicting her husband and the well-known art dealer.

Her bucolic scenes of nudes in the open air recall the self-consciously anachronistic later works of André Derain while Henri Rousseau could be quoted in one of the her figures: “Reclining Nude: Paul Rosano” (1977).  In fact, her penchant for seating nudes in the classic modernist pieces that obviously furnished her home, from Paul Rosano again, in a Jacobson chair from 1971 through to “Max Warsh Seated Nude” (2006), the one contemporary work, in an Eames lounge chair, makes a justified historical case for naïve realism as literally and metaphorically embraced by vintage modernism.

Philip Pearlstein Model with HMV Dog and Renaissance Bambino 2006 oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Philip Pearlstein, Model with HMV Dog and Renaissance Bambino 2006 oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

The critical fortunes of Messrs. Pearlstein and Katz have inevitably been intertwined since Irving Sandler jointly identified them with what he termed the new perceptual realism.  If you see their works at the same time you quickly realize, where Mr. Katz uses perception to build a painting, Mr. Pearlstein paints in order to use perception.  He is optically obsessed, with no love to spare for paint itself.  At times it seems that the “paint originals” might be jettisoned once they have been photographed—the only value of the paint was to realize the image.

This is not to say for a moment, however, that Mr. Pearlstein is photorealist.  He revels in distortions that only become apparent to an eye trained obsessively on the highly suggestive shapes of limbs in space and the shadows they create, with patterns and objects chosen to test the gaze and tease the picture surface.

The new body of work includes many old favorites among its motife: toys, furniture, models, and kinds of relationship whose reality is exclusively bound to the studio “set up”.  These include translucent plastics calculated to accentuate the distortion of spread limbs and carpet patterns in “Two Models with Balloon Chair and Neon Mickey Mouse” (2007), and ornate objects like a model sailboat or a giant model butterfly, the choreography of whose details mimic the light and shade intricacy of musculature.  In “Model with HMV Dog and Renaissance Bambino” the plays of flesh against wood, of antique porcelain against modern porcelain, are elaborate texural challenges.

In terms of the opposition of a naïve belief in capturing everything and a mannerist delight in the extremities of style, Mr. Pearlstein has it both ways: He is a mannerist when he arranges his set up and positions his canvas, a primitive thereafter.