Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Paper 3 - Crisis as Catalyst: Alfred Leslie’s and Frank Stella’s Turn Toward Caravaggio

Jill Christian
Advisor: Deborah Davidson
Group 2 – Paper 3
2 May 2010

Crisis as Catalyst: Alfred Leslie’s and Frank Stella’s Turn Toward Caravaggio

In his book Working Space Frank Stella discussed how he hoped to use his engagement with an analysis of Caravaggio’s and other Baroque painters’ handling of painted pictorial space to reinvigorate his own painting (and controversially, to also lead the way to a reinvigoration of abstract painting in general). Reading Stella’s Working Space, I began to think about other artists who may have been influenced by looking towards the past, specifically to Caravaggio and other Baroque painters. I found not only Stella, but also Alfred Leslie. Both artists looked back to Caravaggio. Why did these two artists (as well as others) turn to styles and historical periods so different than their own?

After achieving success as an abstract expressionist in the 1950s, by 1962 Alfred Leslie had abandoned abstraction for figuration. Frank Stella abandoned hard-edged minimalism for an expressionistic, three-dimensional, and curvilinear form of abstraction. Both attribute their change to a type of crisis: a belief that a kind of “dead-end” had been reached, both in their own work and associated with the style in which they were working. And, interestingly, both discuss Caravaggio and the Baroque as a major influences in their development and reinvigoration of their painting.

Ten years apart in age, both Leslie (b. 1927) and Stella (b. 1936) were painting in times (1960s and 1970s) when the styles in which they were working—and the act of painting itself—were being questioned and challenged. David Elliott in the catalogue essay for Leslie’s 2007 show, “The Radical Theatre of Alfred Leslie”, said, “by the end of the 1960s, vanguard painting had limited itself terribly, by following a prescription first articulated by Clement Greenberg in his essay ‘American-Type Painting (1955-58)’.” For Leslie, the crisis was the canonization of abstract expressionism, particularly in the United States. In a 1985 interview with Stephen Westfall in Art In America Leslie said, “the adversarial position of 20th-century painting, which was what so attracted me in 1946, seemed to have disappeared by 1960.” In a later interview with Alexi Worth in The Sienese Shredder, Leslie said, “And don’t forget, this was the time when (Ab-Ex) painting had become totally acceptable. The sense of challenge was diminishing. For me, it as the beginning of the transition. I said to myself, you can be a painter but a lousy artist. Or you can be an artist, but not be a painter. So I said, What am I?”

Leslie also experienced a personal crises about the same time he began moving towards the figure: a 1966 fire destroyed the contents of his studio – paintings, drawings, films, writing, notes, and his good friend, Frank O’Hara, was killed in an accident. To Westfall, he said that it was a turning point. He “decided to consolidate my energies into painting. I wanted to restore the practice of painting which I felt was slipping away (Elliott 8).” Leslie began a series of paintings about O’Hara’s death ("The Killing Cycle") that he would work on for over 14 years. Leslie used a new Caravaggio-like painting style (Hoban), which included theatrical and dramatic compositions and heavy use of chiaroscuro. “In the months following the fire, Leslie began to relate the personal losses that he had witnessed to what he perceived as the erosion of painting’s traditional values…Leslie resolved to merge cinematic ideas and theatrical method into his paintings, which he referred to as painted stories and, in the process, to reestablish the narrative qualities of the Western painting tradition, citing David and Caravaggio, among others as models (Elliott 10).”

Likewise, Stella experienced a similar stylistic crisis as he was making his transition away from hard-edged minimalism. Minimalism seemed to have nowhere left to go – the pictorial surface had “been flattened and emptied of figures, subject matter and illusionistic space (Smith)”. Composition was based on geometric rules, and “minimalist orthodoxy was stern in its prohibition of discernible feeling (Kramer)”. Early in his career, Stella enthusiastically embraced minimalism’s principles. He rejected the past, figuration, and abstract expressionism, saying, "if something's used up, something's done, something's over with, what's the point of getting involved with it? (Kramer).” However, Stella began to react to “the large element of boredom” that minimalism was generating (Kramer). Stella said, “Something about the essential differences between the imagery and intentions of abstract painting and those of representational painting makes it very hard for us to relate abstraction to the past. This same difference makes it hard for us to look to the future. We seem to be enmeshed in a difficult present (Stella 1).”
There was a feeling that there was a need to open up painting and save it from the formalism promoted by Greenberg (and widely accepted) which had limited the practice of painting. “The conventions that modernists disdained the most were those of traditional European oil painting, the accomplishments of roughly four hundred years…all of which used illusionistic space to create pictorial narratives (Elliott 10).” It was these traditional conventions that helped transform Leslie’s and Stella’s practices. In fact, employing them became a radical gesture. “Leslies’ vocal championing of a return to figuration and especially his promotion of Baroque and Neo-Classical artists as role models tended to cast him as a conservative crackpot (Elliott 14).”

Talking about his shift from abstraction to figuration, Alfred Leslie said, "There was a point at which I realized that if my work was to develop and evolve, and if I was to mature as an artist, these figurative ideas could not be ignored, even though following them could seem to imply that I would be turning my back on the twentieth century, turning my back on my abstract achievement". Leslie, like Stella and many others, asserted that all painting is essentially abstract (Sachs Samet).” Likewise, Stella asks, “can there be abstraction without some kind of figuration? Can there be art with only two-dimensional depiction? The answer to the first question is probably no, because art, even when limited to line and plane, will yield shape, and the shape itself becomes the figuration. The answer to the second is probably yes—there can be art with only two-dimensional depiction, if we are not too fussy (Stella 79).”

Neither Leslie nor Stella saw their stylistic metamorphosis as a contradiction. Both recognized the continuity between figuration and abstraction, and between the present and the past. In their own work, there was a logic, and they did not see their transformation as incompatible with their earlier work. In Leslie’s case, he maintained in his figurative paintings the formal qualities of abstract expressionism: “materiality, directness, and scale (Cohen).” Stella for his part brought to his minimalistic, flat abstraction the three-dimensionality and gestural energy he saw Caravaggio and the “old masters”.

An opening up of mediums and styles and a free appropriation of the past and the present is a primary feature of post-modernism. There is also a line of thought that associates some post-modern positions as “Neo-Baroque”. “Whereas Modernists constantly strived for new methods and modes of expression that broke cleanly from the past, Neo-Baroque (and Postmodern) artists have sought to incorporate or reflect upon the past (Wacker 4). In this respect, and in both Stella and Leslie could be considered as both post-modern and Neo-Baroque. Investigating and appropriating aspects of past painting, and in particular the painting of the “old masters” such as Caravaggio, allowed both Leslie and Stella to push their investigations in a way that referring to and responding to painting of their own time never could have done. By engaging in a dialogue with the past, both painters re-invigorated their work and escaped the dead-end they perceived in their early (and successful) work. As Stella said, “we have now had over 110 years of abstraction, and it hasn’t turned out to be a dead end. It hasn’t turned out to be limited…Abstraction is just as challenging as ever (Ayers interview).”

Cohen, David. “The Radical Theater of Alfred Leslie.” Art Critical / The New York Sun. Web. 25 April 2010. .
Elliott, David. “The Radical Theatre of Alfred Leslie.” Catalog essay from the exhibition 22 March – 21 April 2007. New York: Ameringer Yohe Fine Art. 2007. Web. 25 April 2010.
Haber, John. “Alfred Leslie: 1951-1962.” Web. 26 April 2010. .
Hughes, Robert. “Art: The Grand Maximalist.” Time Magazine. 02 Nov. 1987. Web. 26 April 2010. .
Kalina, Richard. “The Right Moves: Alfred Leslie in the Fifties”. Art in America April 2005. Web.
Kramer, Hilton. “It’s Ugly, Drafty, Ghastly: Stella’s Work in a Garage.” The New York Observer. 27 Jan. 2002.) Web. 25 April 2010. .
Sachs Samet, Jennifer. “The Artist Who Had To Start Over.” The New York Sun. 18 April 2007. Web. 25 April 2010. .
Smith, Roberta. “It’s Not Dry Yet.” The New York Times. 26 March 2010. Web. 28 March 28 2010. (
Stella, Frank. Working Space. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986. Print.
Stella, Frank. Interview by Robert Ayers. “A Sky filled with Shooting Stars: Robert Ayers in conversation with Frank Stella. Web. 09 April 2010. .
Trespeuch, Helene. “Frank Stella: The Baroque to the Rescue of Abstract Art? The Reception of Frank Stella in France Since 1975.” In Baroque Tendencies in Contemporary Art, Kelly A. Wacker, ed. Newcastle United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2007. Print.
Wacker, Kelly A. Baroque Tendencies in Contemporary Art. In Baroque Tendencies in Contemporary Art, Kelly A. Wacker, ed. Newcastle United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2007.
Westfall, Stephen. “Then And Now: Six of the New York School Look Back.” Art in America 73 (June 1985). P. 113.
Worth, Alexi. “Octopussarianism: Ten Alfred Leslie Years. The Sienese Shredder #2. 2008 Web. 28 April 2010. .

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