Carnivals and Crucifixion

For 70 years, June Leaf has been creating mixed-media paintings, drawings and sculptures that are philosophically charged, spellbindingly detailed and preternaturally moving.

Thought Art

As in the art of 17th-century Dutch masters, acts of looking—optics, mirroring and reflection—are central to Leaf’s portraits.

Photo by Thought Is Infinitie/Steidl

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Writing in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1893), the British critic Walter Pater proposes that art can rescue us from routinized life. Gazing at Italian masters, Pater speculates that art liberates us from time by concentrating our energies and making us “burn always with [a] hard gem-like flame.” Unwittingly Pater set in motion the Modernist quest for the Holy Grail, a new art that could provide refuge from what Irish novelist James Joyce termed “the nightmare” of history.  Today as we move through the dread-filled history in our no-longer-new millennium, is Pater’s faith in art as a source of sustained ecstasy still plausible, or an outdated post-Romantic delusion?

Time, and therefore history, seems more constricting than in Pater’s era. We are hemmed in by gadget-driven moment-by-moment quantities of information and misinformation. As a result, our digitized economy supervises and consumes our months, weeks, hours and minutes. Then there are other cultural limitations imposed on us by time and history, many enforced by contemporary artists. So-called “artists’ statements,” alongside libraries of obtuse critical theory, dictate social and political agendas for creative artworks before the general public can digest them. And if time, which is to say, history, is money, so too is art. Ask “what is art?” and the quickest answer is, “a $63.8 billion dollar a year global commodity market.”

But in pockets of this country, if you look long and hard enough, you will find galleries and studios where prodigious artists whose names you have never seen are keeping alive the Modernist belief that the ecstasies of art can surpass the conventional frames of historicized knowledge.

A case in point is the American artist—and visionary—June Leaf. For 70 years, Leaf has been creating mixed-media paintings, drawings and sculptures that are philosophically charged, spellbindingly detailed and preternaturally moving. Acutely expressive and warmly intimate, Leaf’s imaginative semi-abstract portraiture relocates art-making into the private, deadline-free zone of private experimentation, exploration and transmutation.

Stylistically speaking, Leaf is neither a realist, copying nature, nor a Surrealist mining the subconscious. And critical comparisons of Leaf’s art to contemporaneous styles of postwar American art fall short, too. The most effective comparisons are to rare iconoclasts who thoroughly absorbed the innovations of talented teachers and peers and then quickly surpassed them. Such artists, like Leaf, established, quite early on in their careers, a penetrating vision that unveils transformative processes even within identities that seem stationary or settled. Leaf’s art resembles the fantastical creatures of Hieronymus Bosch’s free-ranging topographies, the audaciously inventive Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, and the sinuous, carnal portraiture of Rembrandt van Rijin and Alberto Giacometti. But such comparisons only go so far. Lately, the general public is getting a chance to encounter her art firsthand.

From late April through mid-July of last year, Leaf enjoyed a high profile spotlight in the exhibition Thought is Infinite, a solo show featuring about 100 mixed media drawings and paintings alongside selected sculptures in the ground-floor gallery of the revitalized Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. That retrospective has been reproduced in an accompanying exhibition monograph featuring critical essays and recent studio photos of Leaf, who, at age 87, is still at her creative peak.

Leaf’s career follows a familiar counter-cultural trajectory for American artists who came of age after the Second World War. Like her many peers, she benefited from training in avant-garde techniques by European émigrés before breaking free of that influence and going it alone, with intermittent support from galleries, museums and collectors.

Born and raised in Chicago, Leaf studied at the New Bauhaus housed in the Institute of Design, known today as the Illinois Institute of Technology. There the lyrical abstractionist Hugo Weber tutored her in the human-centered aesthetics of that school’s founder László Moholy-Nagy who was himself interested in the body-centered kinetic possibilities of the visual and plastic arts. Describing this initial education, Leaf has said that Weber taught her an unrehearsed mode of “motor control drawing,” in which students start drawing “like there was no art training, no history.”

Though she immediately adopted this somatic approach to drawing and painting, in 1948, she interrupted that education and, cultivating an interest in abstraction, she went on a brief sojourn in France. By 19, she was fully matured as an artist and already redefining portraiture, having judiciously co-opted certain avant-garde techniques of that rich mid-century period. A standout watercolor from her early period, “Head” (1949) exemplifies Leaf’s gift for integrating cutting-edge styles while harnessing such innovations to spell out the changeability of the human form. “Head,” is a long-necked blue, green and yellow figure in profile against a blood-red and rubicund backdrop. The iconic figure’s facial features are outlined by incised lines on the paper so that the subject appears sculpted within the paper’s surface. The head coalesces into a vast constellation of lines and atmospherics augmented by the marbleizing washes of polychromatic watercolor.

And Leaf was only getting started. In 1958, after finishing her formal education in Chicago, she returned to France on a Fulbright and took life drawing classes. In her free time, she fell under the spell of Francisco Goya, an influence detectable in Leaf’s painstaking portraits that dramatize how vulnerable bodies respond with agonizing grace to the varied assaults visited upon their flesh, both from within and without. In “Studies for Ballroom” (1958) two compressed and chiseled figures—a hatted man in a suit and cravat and a woman in a sleeveless gown – are outlined in black and white pastel. Rather than simply appear, their forms emerge and materialize within a strange suspension of ordinary time, mainly achieved by Leaf’s elaborate scrum of liquefied and dappled reds and yellows. As in so many of Leaf’s works, these substantial human figures are so infinitesimally delineated that their never-ending particularities seem to animate them in perpetuity.

Similarly the photographically real face of the woman in Leaf’s acrylic-and pencil portrait “French Model” (1958-59) is scrupulously personalized by a sort of expressionistic sfumato. And the magic of this portrait derives from such inbuilt contradictions. The woman’s unmistakable individuality—from her randomly parted hairline to the open-toe recesses of her shoe tips—seems at odds with the mythic phantasmal haze that radiates from her, an aura of timelessness injected by Leaf’s subtly integrated flourishes of abstract grays and whites. It is a signature combination in her art wherein a concentrated, empathetic realism operates in tandem with fluid, impromptu abstraction.

By 1960, Leaf settled in New York City where she still maintains a home. Frequently Leaf envisions that city and its people as part of an unremitting circus charged with exalted physical joy and amorphous existential threats, mood swings visible in her portrait of hysterical children at play in “Inwood Park” (1965) and in her study of wary adults standing before amusement park rides in “Coney Island” (1968).

As in the art of 17th century Dutch masters, acts of looking—optics, mirroring and reflection—are central to Leaf’s portraits. She exploits the confusion between the observer and the actor and creates tableaus that force the viewer in the artist’s shoes. Such strategies make palpable the intoxicating confusions between the maker and the made, the seer and the seen. Figures frequently huddle in corners of the picture plane, or tumble toward the foreground. Many appear suddenly available to our eyes through an abruptly opened door or window pane. At other times, anthropomorphic beings erupt whole cloth without any narrative context. Still other pictures involve acrobat-like figures standing on verges or precipices, inducing a sense of vertigo in the viewer that simultaneously renews our awareness about the freedoms afforded by pure space and pure mobility, freedoms that we largely ignore because we habitually take those twin resources for granted.

Leaf’s own body seems coextensive with the bodies she represents. The locomotive energy that animates and courses through the human body has its direct correspondence in the artist’s recursive outlines and feverish modifications, her dexterous brushwork and her rough juxtapositions, the latter accentuated by her deviations into collage and photography.

Of all of Leaf’s philosophically loaded studies, “Made of Mirrors” (1963), a pastel on paper, might be her masterpiece. A young woman trains a handheld mirror on herself as she combs her hair, and her reflected face stands in for her actual one. The viewer, like the woman holding the mirror, must process what is seen. Leaf lays out every conceivable concretion of her face. These teeming swarms of layered colors represent innumerable instantaneous self-impressions that flash into consciousness as she looks into the mirror. As the semi-abstract composition fills in the upper portions of the woman’s head, the vibrantly colored crosshatching gives way to black lines. A pig snout juts from the woman’s profile. Directly above that hint of animal nature, a tiara-like crown takes shape. In its paroxysms of colors and truthful distortions of the human visage, Leaf’s “Made of Mirrors,” proves that personal identity is neither whole nor singular but exists somewhere in the scattered, kaleidoscopic visual data that floods each act of self-perception. In the quest for an ultimate Reality, ecstatic reflection forever displaces the static object.

Because Leaf’s art testifies to how the bodily quest for knowledge sets in motion exploratory acts such as drawing, painting and sculpting, her output necessarily takes on an autobiographical tenor. Such elliptical self-portraiture informs the monograph June Leaf: Record 1974/75 (Steidl Publishers 2010), a book that might be one of the most raw testaments ever to an artist’s midlife struggles and disappointments.

Record 1974/75 is a perfect facsimile of an original ledger containing Leaf’s art and writing from a particularly trying period in her long and still-flourishing second marriage, to photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank. Leaf and Frank, who married in 1969, found a retreat from New York City in a home studio in Cape Breton, Canada, where they initially considered permanent relocation. While Frank was absent physically and psychologically mourning the death of his daughter from a previous marriage, Leaf kept a journal with notes and sketches designed to quell her own isolation and dislocation. Her overarching plan was to create a series based on the daily lives in and around the Mabou coal mines. As that project falters, Leaf’s drawings and notes show her peeling back layers of drab routine. “What I could do,” she writes in one journal entry, “is start by rendering the objects that I work with, [for] they, like the thread, lead the way from the ‘real’ world to the world ‘beneath.’” On the page facing this cryptic note is Leaf’s startling painting of her hand holding opened her watercolor set, like a visual parable that solves the initial conundrum. The smudges and strains on the casing create swelling and prismatic counterpoints to the orderly compartments of the prearranged palette. This pattern of dejected self-exhortation and responsive drawing and painting lends to Record 1974/75 a strange stop-and-start momentum. Gradually Leaf accommodates herself to the vicissitudes of the foreign terrain and the humdrum randomness of studio hours. In one series she finds fresh energy by drawing realistic and abstract versions of whirling prototypes at the nearby Alexander Graham Bell Museum. Other pages contain indelible small-scale portraits of Mabou’s residents and melancholy self-portraits of the artist emerging from the water or trooping through barren landscape. Still other pages bristle with mysterious notes of self-encouragement—“I’m going to try to make a figure/in a room—whose head inside/is filled with images/the head is like/a carnival where there/is also a crucifixion.”

In both tropes, the crucifixion and the carnival, we find valuable metaphors for the extreme situations that, for Leaf, might epitomize the human body’s power to encounter and know the eternal, both in unbearable suffering and in exuberant play.

And to paraphrase poet John Donne, the body makes the mind. Adding Leaf’s own formulations, we can agree with her that “thought is infinite” due to the fact that human consciousness can conceptualize timelessness. And by grasping this ecstatic knowledge through the body, the figures in Leaf’s art act on it and thus fulfill its promise.

Every created object or gesture in Leaf’s visual universe is a successful experiment in evading the time-bound condition of the ordinary. That is why, in her aesthetics, science is in league with art. Both investigate the minutiae of small-scale and cellular life one day, while gazing into galaxies and telescoping to the heavens the next.

In Leaf’s many hand-operated sculptures, mechanical devices such as gears, sewing machines, microscopes, drill bits and propellers function as emblems of artistic research. The human figure advances like a corporeal machine motivated by an inner charge, a spark made visible by pure physicality and then converted into art. Conversely, objects have a life, too. Leaf’s household apparatuses and half-human robots are depicted as graceful as lovers or ballerinas.

As we move ahead each day saturated by technology and sanitized at our screens, Leaf is still getting grime and dirt under her fingernails, laboring in the studio’s messy materiality, whether by welding crank shafts to metal bases, or painting on polaroid prints and blackboards. Her art shows us that by minding the body’s moments and movements we realize how ceaselessly these acts give meaning and resonance to our lives. And through such an art we realize that we always were—and always will be—muscular ghosts transcending the very machines we inhabit.


Tim Keane teaches creative writing and literary modernism at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York City.