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Meditation on time, existence at Haggerty Museum of Art

Three exhibitions at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum of Art offer a powerful meditation on time and existence. Works by Alfred Leslie are built upon multiple layers of perception, and the echoes of memory in the present. The photographs of Nadav Kander ask if the cosmetics of new bridges and buildings are capable of destroying history. Collectively, the work of these artists draws up the edges of personal and cultural history with aesthetic persuasion.

Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara: ‘The Last Clean Shirt’

You know they found him in the back seat

of an old abandoned Ford

When I touched the hand of my brother Bill

It was stiff as a running board

— From Brother Bill (The Last Clean Shirt), written by Charles Otis, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller. 

The funereal lyrics of this song, spirited gibberish in Finnish, poetic existential observations and quotidian matters form a backdrop to a black-and-white film made in 1964 by Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara. A black man and a white woman get into a convertible for a drive through Manhattan. A small round clock is strapped to the dashboard with tape, and off we go, our vantage point from the back seat. The man drives, actively listening to the woman’s energetic chatter. In the spacious front seat, she twists and turns, adjusting her position as though on a living room couch while the city, cars, and its inhabitants roll on past. 

So it seems an ordinary moment on an ordinary day. But repetition makes it something transcendent. The film runs three times over, with the same visuals but different audio. In the first iteration, we just hear the women’s voice and street sounds. The reprise includes text by poet O’Hara, presented as subtitles that offer an obtuse, surprising angle to the monologue. In the ultimate iteration we hear the mind of the silent man: on social critique, aspirations, thoughts of distance and wishes to be elsewhere. Leslie’s conception of the piece folds time over on itself, as the layers of thought and dialogue that must happen simultaneously are stretched in a linear sense in the screening room. 

The nature of time was revisited by Leslie in the suite of paintings, The Killing Cycle. O’Hara is involved in this series as well — as it was his unexpected death that prompted it, along with the fiery destruction of much of Leslie’s work. 

Alfred Leslie: ‘The Killing Cycle’ 

There are difficult years, and then there is the year 1966 in the life of Alfred Leslie. His close friend, poet Frank O’Hara, was spending the summer on Fire Island, and one night, the car he was traveling in along the beach broke down. While waiting for assistance, O’Hara wandered away. In the darkness, he was struck and killed by another car. 

To make matters worse, that autumn, just before a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum, Leslie’s home, studio and much of his work were destroyed in a massive fire. The conflagration and the tragedy of O’Hara’s death formed the motivating energy behind The Killing Cycle. 

Leslie was part of the Abstract Expressionist circles in New York City, but these canvases show his extraordinary power as a visual narrator. 

In “The Accident,” gaunt swimmers or furies emerge from the ocean, both terrifying and terrified as death plays out behind them. The nocturnal light illuminates the details of the scene. Leslie’s handling of paint and his creation of the human body in all its emotion is where the extraordinary power of his work resides. He borrows from the long historical traditions of painting — compare the strange tenebrous light and composition of “The Loading Pier” with Caravaggio’s “The Entombment.” 

But he also offers cool detachment — the acknowledgment that as death strikes, the world continues to move. The viewer may be immediately taken in by “The Cocktail Party,” where the golden, sculptural bodies of a young man and woman linger languidly on a summer night. The scenario of O’Hara’s accident is visually a minor note in the far distance, but it sets a major tone in the stark juxtaposition of idyllic summer and life that ends without warning. 

About this series, Leslie says, “What this work is really about I can’t say, except that formally it is meant to be multi-leveled with its implied meanings focused enough that they are all fighting for ascendency. And that these jostling meanings seek out the viewer’s perceptions to combine and recombine with each person so that no one interpretation succeeds.” 

Nadav Kander: ‘Yangtze — The Long River’

Photographer Nadav Kander is an explorer of time. Whereas Alfred Leslie’s sense of time is one where memory exists as strongly as the present, Kander’s photographs in The Long River understand time and memory as fragile, able to be erased, rewritten or subsumed by ambition and industry. He notes, “China is a nation that appears to be severing its roots by destroying its past. Demolition and construction were everywhere on such a scale that I was unsure if what I was seeing was being built or destroyed, destroyed or built.” 

In these large-scale photographic prints, the juxtaposition of humanity, nature and industry reappears in numerous forms. “Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic)” is a moment of pleasure taken upon what is essentially a pile of rubble that used to be buildings and houses. The relationship of present to past is certainly uneasy — and even melancholy. Enormous bridges and buildings dwarf humble human inhabitants and dominate the Yangtze, a perpetual presence in these images. 

There is little that is overtly picturesque, but Kander brings a vivid sense of color and modern gravitas to these works. The ceaseless march of progress through the transformation of the built environment is a condition of every city. In that sense Yangtze — The Long River is in part a documentary and part an elegy. 

On exhibit

The Last Clean Shirt, The Killing Cycle, and Yangtze — The Long River continue through Dec. 23 at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University, 13th and Clybourn Streets. For more information, visit marquette.edu/haggerty. 

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— Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Flowers London/New York.

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