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‘Alfred Leslie: The Killing Cycle’

Prominent mid-century artist on view at the Haggerty

Oct. 1, 2014
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Alfred Leslie’s painting, The Cocktail Party, shows an idyllic summer evening on the Long Island shore. From a high terrace two people, bronzed from the sun, look down to the beach like pampered youths of Olympus. Something has caught the attention of the young man; lights of vehicles break the darkness of the beach. In the pale yellow beams, blurs of small dark figures are in distress. A death has occurred.

This combination of banality and tragedy suffuses the paintings in “The Killing Cycle,” a body of work by Leslie at the Haggerty Museum of Art. His compositions are not entirely fiction, but inspired by events from the summer of 1966. Leslie’s good friend, the poet Frank O’Hara, was on Fire Island in a car coming back from a party. The vehicle broke down on the beach and as O’Hara walked in the dark, he was hit and killed by another vehicle. In October of that same year, a terrible fire destroyed Leslie’s home, studio and much of his art, just before he was to have a major retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum.

What to do in the face of unexpected, inexplicable loss? Leslie channeled the scenario of O’Hara’s death over and over. Some of the monumental paintings in “The Killing Cycle” are modern reinterpretations of the tenebrous shadows and extraordinary light found in the Baroque art of Caravaggio. Leslie’s The Loading Pier in particular, with its pyramid of bodies and faces of shock and mournfulness over the deceased borne in the foreground, recall tense and tender compositions such as Caravaggio’s Deposition, where Christ is about to be laid in his tomb.

Leslie was among a group of artists in the mid-20th century whose nonobjective sensibilities cast them at the forefront of the contemporary art world. Leslie’s dramatic narratives and extraordinary figures contradict a predilection for abstraction, though a close viewing of the canvas surfaces reveals the fluidity and power of his brush. In the poignancy of his narratives, there is catharsis and maybe even the rescue of some part of that which has been lost.

“Alfred Leslie: The Killing Cycle” is on view through Dec. 23 at the Haggerty Museum of Art (13th and Clybourn streets, Marquette University campus). Also on view is The Last Clean Shirt, a collaborative film by Leslie and Frank O’Hara.


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