Nix on Nixon perfectly captures the vigor and intensity that Alfred Leslie brought to his abstract canvases. When he painted the work in 1960, Leslie was widely recognized as an important member of the New York School's younger generation. As a ringleader of the downtown scene in New York at the time, he was involved in avant-garde film and literary ventures, and was particularly admired for his brusque, gestural abstractions.
Unlike his Abstract Expressionist predecessors, several of whom carefully mapped out their compositions through sketches in advance of their allegedly spontaneous abstractions, Leslie's work embodied Harold Rosenberg's exhortation to artists to paint with a loaded brush and energetic execution. Layers upon layers of color are accented with hard right angles that mark the path of Leslie's aggressive brushstroke, as sprays and splashes of paint indicate the fury of the artist's emphatic gesture. The bristles of his brush even dug into the layers beneath, revealing underlying color fields and giving his work an increased sense of tactility and depth. The color palette that Leslie employs is characteristically daring, and the sprays of color that flew off his stiff brush resemble sparks flying off the canvas.
Nix on Nixon features Leslie's signature motif of two defined parallel vertical strokes, which is boldly rendered in black on an opalescent field toward the center of the canvas, then echoed below in pale tones on a rich green ground. This painterly double vertical mark is Leslie's counterpart to Barnett Newman's zips or Mark Rothko's rectangles. Leslie's large painted abstractions are related to his earlier paint and paper collages. Perhaps inspired by his experiences assembling collages, Leslie often divided his canvases into painted quadrants, emphasizing both their disjuncture and synthesis through their diverging colors and painterly marks. Allan Stone referred to a "classic dialogue" in Leslie's work, established through a contrast between geometrical compartments and interloping splashes of paint. Each one of these fields of color stacked next to each other is a bold and fascinating composition in its own right, and together they form a complex and engaging opus.
Leslie's preferred compositional method of stacking individually fascinating blocks of paint together to create a rich whole, echoes in certain ways the heterogeneous mix of interests that stood side by side in his life. As a painter, he was extremely active in exhibiting his work, and throughout the 1950s he was included in numerous exhibitions such as "Recent Work by Young Americans" and "16 Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1954 and 1959 respectively, "Artists of the New York School: Second Generation" at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1957, and the Whitney Museum's Annual Exhibition in 1959. Yet Leslie was also active in writing, music, set design and film. In the late 1950s, Leslie composed the literary work "The Chekhov Cha-Cha," which, as Leslie explained "can be seen as a poem, a novel, or a play, a multi-purpose work."
Leslie's most celebrated work in film was created just a year before he painted Nix on Nixon. Pull My Daisy is a landmark in American independent film, which Leslie co-directed with Robert Frank. The film starred Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, with cameos by artists such as Larry Rivers and Alice Neel, and a script based on Kerouac's play The Beat Generation. The film captured the spirit of Beat culture and its emphasis on improvisation, and was incredibly prescient in its anticipation of counter-cultural trends that would sweep across the country in the sixties.
In 1960, Leslie published The Hasty Papers, a literary review that was an anarchic and edgy mix of artistic, literary and political musings. Willem de Kooning praised the one-time publication as "a snapshot of us all." The Hasty Papers included writings from a diverse array of eminent contributors (some unauthorized), such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara, and even Fidel Castro. The eclectic mix of this publication echoed the social and intellectual circles that Leslie attracted to his lively open-house studio. As Allan Stone recalled, "Leslie's studio was a cultural center, always open and filled with art happenings and events."
Leslie's political and social engagement found an outlet in such collaborations such as The Hasty Papers, but also in his paintings which included politically allusive titles such as Nix on Nixon and Guevara. Formally, the word play of Nix on Nixon resembles the doubled and fractured elements in his canvas. Painted in 1960, the year when John F. Kennedy was running neck to neck with Richard Nixon for the Presidency, Leslie here declared his rejection of the conservative values that Nixon embodied. Attaching such a title to his canvas highlights how unique Alfred Leslie was in terms of expressing his political engagement through abstract painting at the time. Both in its exuberant, bold painting style and its implicit favor for Kennedy's hopeful vision for a new America, Nix on Nixon looks forward optimistically to the 1960s.