Alfred Leslie: The
by Donald Goddard
Cool Man in a Golden Age
Art Review - NewYorkArtWorld
truth about the war between the people who make art and the people who write
about it ...
Movies make it possible to magnify everything:
sound, image, speed, time. It seems very much like the world in which we live,
only larger. But, of course, it is much smaller, inevitably contained by its
own necessarily limiting conventions. Life spills out around it, and finds other
containers. Funny things happen to scale and its meaning. In Alfred Leslie's
83-minute video we are forever engulfed in the city, surrounded by big buildings,
pushed together with each other in clubs, bars, performances, sex, war--the very
work of art we are watching--in a continuous collision of film clips, Hollywood
and documentary, that surrounds the story. There is nothing gratuitous about
Leslie's appropriations; they form a stream of cultural consciousness.
New York Art with Kramer (Still)
|Toward the beginning
a lone male figure is seen walking through the city, running up subway steps,
the artist or the viewer entering into the scene, an unavoidably moral landscape.
Some things are deliberately diminutive--as though to contrast with the largeness
and bassness of the whole: the figures of children dancing; the piping voices
of young women being led in a nonsensical alphabet song by one of the Three Stooges
as the Nazis march through Europe and concentration camp inmates totter and die;
a small burlesque performer in a yellow tuxedo and derby who sings gibberish
(also in a piping voice) that is translated as a scurrilous attack on artists
by the art critic Hilton Kramer.
Barney Newman (Still)
|Other things are beyond
scale, beyond control: crashes, fires, fights, the drinking that goes on throughout
the video. Parenthetically at the beginning and the end are jokes, the painter
Barnett Newman at the beginning famously saying, "Aesthetics is for me as ornithology
must be for the birds" (implying that aesthetics must be for the birds), and
at the end one museum guard saying to another about a classical marble Cupid,
"Hey Mac . . . do you suppose anybody in their right mind buys a piece of junk
like that," to which the other replies, "Sure they do. That is art."
New Cedar Outside (Still)
|Sorry I gave away the
ending, but it's irresistible, and besides, that only raises the issues. At the
center of the video is an argument, a taped reading of a play by Leslie that
was staged at the New School in New York City in 1997. Leslie first wrote the
play in 1952, at the age of 25, after a night of drinking and talking with fellow
artists and their friends at the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village. He wrote down
what he remembered of the conversations in a non-stop session of five to six
hours, something like the time that had elapsed in the bar.
John Doman as DeKooning (Still)
|That version was lost
in a disastrous fire in 1966 that destroyed Leslie's loft and most of its contents,
including paintings that were to be included in a retrospective at the Whitney
Museum. Twenty years later he wrote a second version based on what he could recall
of the first, adding songs to be sung by the characters and changing the date
to October 29, 1957. The people present are painters Willem de Kooning, Joan
Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Teddy Moore, and April Yablonsky, critic Clement
Greenberg, dealers John Bernard Myers and Richard Bellamy, bookstore proprietor
Peter Martin, and John the bartender.
Jackson with Juke Box (Still)
|The play is embedded
in the video, "A true story about the war between the people who make art and
the people who write about it," as the subtitle says, and keeps reemerging from
the deluge of film clips. Everyone stays in this one place, the Cedar Bar on
University Place, where the Abstract Expressionist artists gathered during the
1950s, conversing and drinking until dawn, uneventfully and placidly except on
the level of argumentation, which climaxes with a punch in the nose (Greenberg's).
Train Crash (Still)
|So The only visual arts
shown are Hollywood versions of a Sphinx, the pyramids of Egypt, and Diego Rivera's
Rockefeller Center mural being destroyed with sledgehammers, but the argument
about art really is at the center of the video. John the Bartender wants them
to stop so he can close the place, but they don't, and he allows them more time,
until the dawn of a new day arrives. They can't stop until they have run their
course, and neither can anything stop. The bar is a kind of ivory tower, away
from everything, where nothing is accomplished except the defense of positions
that are then left undefended, and the consumption of alcohol.
Cops with Cupid (Still)
The actual practice
of those positions is something else, communicable only in itself, and its revelation
is in another world, where art cuts a rather ridiculous figure in the presence
of people who have nothing to do with it except in the form of favor or rejection,
hence the jokes, and critics generally play a compromised role. The talking goes
on, the drinking goes on, the dancing goes on, the sex goes on, the killing goes
on, and the sun comes up. Everything is separate and connected horribly, like
the scene of a man who confronts his alter ego in a mirror, and beautifully.
Art is the extended train crash at the beginning of the video that seems to continue
all the way through, ending with the two guys in uniforms next to a marble Cupid.
Donald Goddard © 2002
The Cedar Bar premiered at the New York Video Festival
in Lincoln Center in 2001 and will be shown at 7:30 PM on Thursday, June 27 through
Sunday, June 30 at the Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue, New York, NY
10003. -- Tel. 212 505 5181. Fax 212 477 2714.. The video will also appear at
the Chicago Underground Film Festival in late August, 2002.
Books by Alfred Leslie
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