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Walking through the green door into June Leaf’s old-school New York studio — a street-level space downtown — is a bit like entering a Willy Wonka world. Whimsical sculptural inventions, fragments, and materials of metal, wood, and wire are everywhere: on a long table by the front windows, strewn about the rough, wide-plank wood floor, leaning against a pressed-tin wall, and resting on easels. Leaf, at age 86, deftly moves through it all.
She sits on a workbench that she designed and made. It can be straddled so that she can easily hammer and tinker with objects on its well-worn work surface. She adjusts a figural relief element on a painting, and one limb falls off. “Never mind,” she says, “I always lose and find things.” Then she takes a blowtorch to bend a metal sculpture.
Later we both try on her eyeglass sculptures. “How beautiful you look, Jennifer!” she exclaims, while I laugh at how weird the world looks. With one pair, I only see what’s in front of me; with the other, I only see what’s behind. She enjoys how much fun I’m having, so we test out another piece. We take turns blowing soap through a woman-shaped pipe, bubbles landing on the torso to form, temporarily, her full abdomen.
Leaf’s narrative — of family, childhood, and true love — is inseparable from her work. Across the mediums of drawing, painting, and sculpture, a cast of characters and dramas weave and return. The scenes depicted are equal parts fantastical and existentialist: a woman carries a heavy child up stairs; a couple gazes at invisible forces in the distance; a man and woman are mobilized by mechanical gears; skeletons and skulls join the feast. Her touch is somehow both muscular and nimble, so that images have a solid footing, but are also laced with mystery. People, and forms, are on the verge of becoming.
Leaf and her husband, the photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, divide their time between New York and Mabou, Nova Scotia. Leaf was born in Chicago in 1929, and studied briefly at the Institute of Design (formerly the New Bauhaus), Chicago, in 1947-48. She returned to the school for her M.A. in Art Education in 1954. Her first solo exhibition was held in 1948 at the Sam Bordelon Gallery, Chicago. In the 1960s and 1970, she showed at Allan Frumkin Gallery, in both its New York and Chicago locations. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, held a retrospective of her work in 1978. Since 1985, she has been represented by Edward Thorp Gallery, where she has had regular solo exhibitions. In 1991, an exhibition of sculpture and works on paper was organized by the Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C., and traveled to the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. She has also been the subject of exhibitions at the Freedman Gallery, Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania; Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia; and the Tinguely Museum, Basel, Switzerland.
A survey exhibition of Leaf’s drawings, June Leaf: Thought is Infinite, opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art, on April 27, 2016.
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Jennifer Samet: I know you have memories from your early childhood, which informed how you think about art. Can you share some of these experiences?
June Leaf: I have a memory from when I was about 3½ years old. My mother was sewing and I was under the table. She handed me some fabric to play with; it was transparent blue with little white dots. I wrapped it around my face and my hands and I thought, “Someday, I’m going to make everything with my hands.” I looked at my mother’s beautiful shoes. Finally, I cautiously asked her, “Will you draw me a high heeled shoe?” She took a pencil and made me the drawing, which I remember to this day.
I looked and I thought, “Oh! That is wrong.” She didn’t put the toe on the ground. The toe was up in the air. To me, that was very important. How could anybody not know that about the foot and the shoe? I took the paper and I thought I’m never going to ask my mother ever about these things. I could perceive she was different from me.
I loved to draw, and in the third grade, I drew just as I do now, which is that I rub and erase and suddenly I see entire scenes. So, one day, I looked at my drawing and could see a Biblical scene, of Joseph and his brothers. I loved that story as a child: when Joseph has become a leader of Egypt and his brothers come to ask for help. I saw the story in my drawing as if it had dropped from the skies. That was probably my first experience with imagination. I was ecstatic.
I raised my hand to show it to the teacher. I approached her desk, carrying the drawing in the palms of my hands. Ms. Anderson had her head down. I said, “Miss Anderson…” And she gestured at me and said, “Yes, you can go to the bathroom. I looked at her, and I looked in my hands, and I thought, “Oh. That’s how it is. You can make something and you see it. But then you have to spend your life to get the world to see it.”
JS: Where did you study?
JL: When I was 18, I went to the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology (originally founded by Moholy-Nagy in 1937 as the New Bauhaus). I was the youngest person in the school, and I think there was only one other girl. It was during the GI Bill years, so it was hard to get into schools. I was a token Chicago high school student.
Hugo Weber, a wonderful man, taught “Visual Fundamentals.” He had recently arrived in the United States from Switzerland and hardly spoke English. He said, “Tomorrow I want you to bring in the biggest sheet of paper you can find.” Well, my parents had a liquor store, and they had rolls of brown paper, so I came in with the biggest sheet of brown paper that they’d ever seen.
Weber said, “What I want everyone to do is take a big piece of chalk and just run it, up and back, along the paper.” That was called motor control drawing. It was based on the ideas of Moholy-Nagy, who had students start like there was no art training. It was about making a line with one’s body instead of anything else – without knowledge, without history. When we were done, Weber pointed to my thing and said, “This is good.” It was the most wonderful way to begin.
I sometimes still work with brown paper, which I love, because it has a beautiful glow, and more space and air than white paper. In my later years, I put tin behind the paper or canvas, which allows me to attach metal elements to the front with magnets.
JS: What did you do after leaving school?
JL: I was in school for three months and then I thought, I don’t want to go to art school. I admired the “visiting artists” who came to school, and I wanted to be one of them. I went to Paris in 1948. I spent my time with my head down, looking at textures, and patterns in the sidewalks. I was thinking about Mark Tobey and Paul Klee. I was still rooted in the abstract tradition. I made a small painting of cobblestones.
I returned to Paris ten years later, in 1958, on a Fulbright Grant. By then, I wanted to really learn how to draw. I saw that I had to put things in space. I wanted to learn how to make space, vapor, and atmosphere.
In Paris, I went to life classes, and I went to the Louvre to copy artists like Goya or Chardin. I gave up my volatile imagery in that period. One day, I was in the Louvre, copying a beautiful Goya painting. I would go to quiet rooms so that I wasn’t disturbed. The room was very cold. I got the eyes just right, and the drawing locked in. Then, all of a sudden, I felt like someone had slapped my hand. I heard my voice say, “Go home. This is Goya’s dream. You’ll never reach across centuries like Goya. You’re just a girl from Chicago.”
I was exhausted. I stayed at a friend’s house, because I felt so ill. I didn’t sleep the whole night. I thought, “If I can get through this night, I can get through any night in my life.” I woke up in the morning and I took a sketchbook, and I made drawings that were just waiting to be made. I made a horse whose head explodes. And then I started to draw these things from my childhood, drawings of women that are a child’s point of view, carousels, merry-go-rounds.
JS: How would you describe your relationship to the Chicago Imagists?
JL: I was never fully part of the Chicago circle because I didn’t go to the Art Institute. But, my work was in a big exhibition called Exhibition Momentum (an artist group founded in Chicago in 1948). Leon Golub saw my work there and wanted to meet me. He asked me, “Is there anything I can do for you?” I said, “Yes, there is something. You can come with me to my mother’s and tell her that I am a good artist.”
So we took a long bus ride — seventy-six blocks through Chicago — and he sat down with my mother. He said, “Mrs. Leaf, I came to tell you that your daughter is a great artist.” That was the language that worked to reassure her about my path as an artist, a path totally unknown to her. He was about ten years older than I, so he had authority, and he soon was successful. So my mother would often say, “Leon Golub told me my daughter’s a great artist.”
Seymour Rosofsky seemed to be the only one who wanted to do master drawing. Once he said, “I’m not interested in contemporary art. I want to wrestle with the angels.” I thought that was wonderful. I also loved the work of Cosmo Campoli.
When I went to Paris in the 1950s, Leon and Nancy Spero were living there. Nancy was raising her sons in that period, and did not have her own studio space. Then, in the 1960s, she made these incredible drawings – penises with heads on them and tongues coming out of them, and helicopters, and people killing people in Vietnam. She was amazing – way up there. Looking back, I see that work as masterpieces. She and I talked about drawings that make themselves – how the artist who is making them is just as surprised as anybody else, in terms of what comes out.
JS: There is a recurring cast of characters in your work. Can you tell me about them, and why you think they recur in your drawings, sculptures, and paintings?
JL: My cast of characters started to emerge in the mid-1950s. I’ve worked on the ballroom motif for a long time. Sometimes I worked for ten years on a ballroom painting, and then I’d throw it out. I couldn’t figure it out. I still don’t understand what goes on in the head that makes that happen to you.
I work with these figures until I am released from them. At least, I think that is how it goes. I’ve been making art since 1948, and I haven’t got a smooth theory. I am just grateful when I can be liberated from these creatures that come and stop me dead in my tracks.
There is a figure of a woman on a hobbyhorse, which has been a terrible obsession. I feel that I have finally been released from her. Just recently I added a male figure to the painting of the woman – who evolved into being seated on a barrel, rather than a hobbyhorse. He is engaging and relating to her, and it changes the dynamic. She is released from being completely indolent. It could be titled, “At Last She is Conversant.”
Although she is a woman in that painting, I have also thought of the figure on the horse or barrel as my father. It is a person who never woke up, and my father was a man who never woke up. He was a gambler and very charming, but he was always in a dream. He said he was going to make a movie about a man that could solve all the world’s problems. He would have Bing Crosby play the lead, but there would be a man behind Bing Crosby who knew all the answers and would tell people what to do. Now what are you going to do with a father like that?
My mother was the one who had to make a living. My father’s example of self-indulgence was important to me. Whenever I had any illusions that I could do something, I would think about my father’s failed dreams. I realized that dreams and imagination are just the start, and then your life’s work begins.
I had to be careful to not be lazy. For instance, there is a painting I made while teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago. When I think back on it now, my mentality was that I was going to stand there until the wall fell down. I wanted something to come out that was undeniable. It turned out that the block-like forms in the painting evolved into the image of a man’s chest; it was a surprise when that happened.
JS: Is this “release” related to feeling like a work is finished, or is it something else?
JL: When a piece is ready, it says, “Okay. It’s not as good as you thought, but just go.” I don’t know what it is. That would be a really good thing to try to figure out: what releases the artist. What is that click that says, “We are through with you”? I think the secret is honesty. The image has to hit you back, for all of your gesticulating and fighting and stabbing and jabbing, being courageous or weak, or soft or hard. Something tells you when you’ve told the truth.
It is a little like falling in love, not that it is equal to that. But, it is a similar moment, where you can’t argue with it; you can’t fake being in love. There is a beautiful story by James Joyce in The Dubliners — “The Dead” — in which the character Gabriel finds out by accident that his wife had loved someone when she was 17. There is a long section at the end of the story where he ruminates about that. The thing that surprised me most was when he said, “I never loved like that.” I find that chilling; I can’t imagine living without that.
JS: In addition to painting, you make sculptural objects, some quite large and complex, with multiple elements and characters, mechanical elements and moving parts. How did this become part of your work?
JL: When I was very young, somebody came to visit and gave me a miniature grass cutter, with wheels that turned. I saw it and I got so excited. When the people left the room, I took it and threw it out the third floor window. I wanted it to fall apart, so that I could see inside it, and how it worked. The next morning I went downstairs to see it and of course it was gone, it had been cleaned up. I still have that instinct; I will break anything in order to figure out how it works.
I use the mechanics of eggbeaters in some of the objects I make. I can look at the movement and mechanics of an eggbeater all day long. I have learned how to reverse the mechanism, so that I can make it move slowly, instead of fast.
I have made eyeglasses. There is one pair with cone-shaped lenses, which block everything in the periphery, so that you only see out of the small opening in the front. They are about the pleasures of focusing, and not being distracted. Another pair of glasses has a mirror attached, like a rear-view mirror, so that you only see what is behind you. It is just the most wonderful thing. Who needs to paint? Who needs to take photographs? You can just go around loving everything.
JS: Do you think of yourself as a painter or a sculptor?
JL: I think of myself as an inventor. Even though I’ve never really invented anything, except maybe the glasses. And I can make figures work on a treadle.
It was always impossible for me to ignore the real world, of people, in my work. Drawing was not just about developing draughtsman skills, but also about building muscles to deal with life, and relationships. I don’t think anything I’ve done in my life equals winning the love of my husband. And I think women have to work double time to maintain relationships and their work.
I understood Cubism to be about the reflections of the inside of a human. I feel this way about Cézanne too – his watercolors are about something more than what you see.
In the early 1960s I made many interpretations of Vermeer’s rooms. I was gripped by Dutch interiors. I liked the window, the glass held by the woman, the gentleman behind her, the painting on the wall and the tiles. But I kept trying to paint the woman.
I couldn’t paint her. I thought, I can’t paint what I imagine, so, I am going to make her instead. That led to the “Vermeer Box” (1965). I made the woman out of mirrors. I wanted to show how she did exist, but she didn’t exist. She sits on a wooden chair, and I made her hips out of mirrors.
I put a little dime on her chair so you see a dime going around her hips. That brought me back to seeing penny arcades as a child. I am sure many painters have been influenced by that experience — the claw that comes down, which you hold to try to get a prize — and then you don’t.
I couldn’t make that in painting, so I had to try to use some other dimension. That defines why I work with materials. I am a painter who had to have a tactile experience with the world. I had to go a circuitous route to get to what I am – a painter.