There is the artist’s artist, and there is June Leaf. Since the early 1950s, she has been populating her work with all sorts of archetypal figures, from naked men and women, to circus performers, to figures in perpetual motion (as in the drawings “Top Lady” and “Gyroscope Woman, “ both 1952), to a variety of animals, (including a crying horse), to a human with pencils for legs. Her cast of characters might include an artist, or a pianist, or a hapless soul that has been hoisted out of an ink bottle with a fishing rod. Often her figures are in a state transition, shoved long by invisible forces or transformed into hybrid creatures, part human and part automaton. What comes across is how vulnerable everyone is — a condition we don’t like to think about.
In Leaf’s work — which ranges across painting, drawing, and sculptural objects, many with moving parts — we are presented with a crucial scene from a drama and/or comedy without an accompanying narrative: it’s like watching a silent film in which inexplicable things happen without any clue as to what precipitated the change. As in Guy Maddin’s movies, we have to imagine the context and can’t. It’s like suddenly being aware of how big the universe might actually be and shuddering. I find that moment as delicious as it is disturbing, but not everyone does.
Over a career that starts in the late 1940s and stretches across seven decades, from postwar American art to the rise of postmodernism, Leaf has never fit comfortably into any one narrative, especially those that describe the New York art world, where she has lived and worked for many years. This is perhaps because she works in an allegorical vein under the tutelary spirit of Odilon Redon, but that doesn’t really begin to describe how incomparable she is. And yet, despite her outlier status, I see her as paving the way for a diverse group of women artists who depict an arcadia inhabited by all sorts of dubious, archetypal characters: Judith Linhares, Katherine Bradford, Dana Schutz, just to name three. Maybe the reason they developed an alternative universe was because in many ways this one — the so-called real thing — has ignored, downplayed, or marginalized them.
There are currently two exhibitions that you can see: June Leaf: Thought is Infinite at the Whitney Museum of American Art (April 27–July 27, 2016) and June Leaf: A Survey, 1949-present at Edward Thorp (April 30–July 15, 2016). Both exhibitions cover the same period — from the late 1940s to today, with a strong emphasis on her drawings. The sculptural objects in both exhibitions and the paintings at Edward Thorp reveal an artist whose oeuvre consists of three distinct bodies of work, all of which deserve more attention.
I am interested, intrigued, astonished and — frankly — happy that Leaf made these works during periods dominated by Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Color Field painting, Conceptual Art, the “death” of painting, the Pictures Generation and postmodern copying, and never once did she seem to notice. I can imagine many people — including critics and artists — being dismissive, annoyed, or befuddled by this, but not me. During a time when nothing seems to be central, Leaf’s independence is exemplary. I think that as time goes by, it will become more so. She is in her late 80s and should be a hero to younger artists. One reason she isn’t might be her subject matter.
Over the years, I have heard people complain that Leaf’s work isn’t modern enough in style or subject matter, as if a power struggle between two individuals is no longer of interest to us. Such judgments remind me that there are always those who are comfortable going along with what Harold Rosenberg called “the herd of independent minds.” They are the ones who occasionally buy a slim book of poetry because a well-respected critic for The New York Times says it is “important and relevant.”
One thing should be clear after you have seen both shows: Leaf can draw, but, unlike many other artists, she doesn’t seem interested in making drawings on fine art paper. They are not about the finished product. Her drawings are sketchy — like Giacometti’s. They are done on all kinds of paper. But whereas Giacometti is looking at his subject when he draws, not at the paper, you have the feeling that Leaf’s is tuning in to her mind’s eye, and that the figures that emerge from the tangles of lines came from her imagination or memory. No matter how little information she puts down — maybe just a few colored lines on lined paper — a world appears before us, with forms and scenes emerging from the process. This is also true of Leaf’s paintings, which are deserving of more attention.
In the painting “Skull on Table” (2006), a splotch of gray paint coalesces into a grinning skull lying on its side, on a green table, no doubt annoyed that it cannot make itself erect. The table’s receding plane points toward an ambiguous landscape that is as much paint as it is smeared light. In almost the exact middle of the composition Leah has laid down a black tangle of paint. Is it a figure walking further into the landscape? Or is it just paint? Nothing is explained. This is “the marvelous” that Andre Beton insisted on, but to her credit, Leaf never gets stuck in the obvious tricks that plagued much of Surrealism.
I think some people might mistake Leaf’s casualness for not caring. She will make drawings and then leave them lying around in her studio. Some needed to be flattened out, after having been crumpled or folded. Some seem to have lain around on the floor until they were rescued. Don’t be surprised to see a stain or burn on the drawings. This sense of discovering what you are up to while you are in the process of doing it is also true of many of the paintings, in which Leaf sometimes attaches another section of canvas because she decides she needs more space. The sculptures, which are made out of tin that looks like it has been lying around for a decade, at least, are submitted to the same process. Leaf’s art is not about the finished look but about discovering the particulars of the world she wants to make. It is a world that is tragic and whimsical, populated by isolated figures or pairs that seem, paradoxically, simultaneously bonded and estranged. Inside the humor and whimsy are deep registers of wounds and pain and solitariness: are these really dead or obsolete subjects?
Jennifer Samet described going to Leaf’s studio as “a bit like entering a Willy Wonka world” or, as I remember it from visiting her studio in the ’80s, like being in the workshop of a slightly demented elf. Given all the attention paid to efficiently run studios and entrepreneur artists with the means to fabricate whatever they want, it is easy to think of Leaf as a throwback to another era. But is art really all about the spectacle of how much money you put into making it? If you have championed this kind of art, it probably means that you have aligned yourself with capitalist aesthetics, whose maxim is the more the art resembles the collector — polished surfaces, copies of historical antecedents, efficient production of signature products, spin-offs for the fashion conscious, and egregious profit margins — the better. In the current climate of moneyed spectacle, Leaf is the truly radical artist, aesthetically and politically. Let’s face it; she’s an original.
June Leaf: A Survey, 1949-present continues at Edward Thorp (210 Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 15.
June Leaf: Thought is Infinite continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) through July 27.