Alfred Leslie: The Cedar Bar

by Donald Goddard

Cool Man in a Golden Age
Alfred Leslie

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the 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.

Nero Laughs
Crit of Surreal Picture
Dame and Pie with Hand in Face
Dame Laughs at Sex

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."

Naked in the Rain
Dogs Watch Tennis
Dame with Giant
Hanging Man

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.

Men Executed
Fruit Musicians
Dame in Shower
Dame Junkie Head Turned In

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.

Man with Pie in Face
Dame with Bubble
Dame's Asses Up
Dames Arm Swing

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).

Dame Wild Kiss
Dames Water Squirt
Baby Born
Dames Dance and Jump

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.

Mirror Craze
Black Women Grieve
Child Plowing
Dame Grimace at Pie

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

Stooge with Alphabet
Ronnie Laughs
Baby Born Head Out

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.

42nd Street and Grand Central
NY Art with Kramer
Train Crash
Outside the Cedar Bar

See Review: Alfred Leslie: 1951-1962: Expressing the Zeitgeist

Books by Alfred Leslie

Attacked by Heart
Man Golden Age

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