To move is to LIVE! To STATICIZE is to die. Therefore: the hope of our survival is to wage a never-ending war against STATICISM.

Alfred Leslie

The Prince of Pulp

The Inspired Work of Joe Wilfer

Joe Wilfer at Tandem Press, 1993. Photo courtesy of Miriam Hill.

Considered one of the preeminent paper makers and a visionary in contemporary printmaking, Joe Wilfer never stopped learning and doing. 

Born in Racine, Wisconsin in 1943, Joe grew up understanding the importance of dedication and self-sufficiency while at the same time developing an appreciation for art. He was dedicated to scouting, becoming an Eagle Scout at the incredibly young age of 11, while in school he was being introduced to printmaking, an interest that stemmed in part from the hand-painted signs he saw in the town’s shop windows. Upon his graduation from high school, Joe attempted to join the army but when that failed, he instead enrolled at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee while simultaneously pursuing his undergraduate, and later master’s degree, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

It was during his graduate studies in Art Education with an emphasis on printmaking that Joe began to turn his fascination toward the paper that was used as the support in printmaking and its untapped possibilities. He immersed himself in the subject, learning all he could about paper. He visited mills throughout Wisconsin and eventually set up his own studio in the basement of the Madison Art Center, where he had at this point worked his way up from janitor to director. He took an old washing machine and adapted it to be used as a “beater” for making pulp from 100% cotton rag scraps. Once he was satisfied with the surface, he sent samples of his sheets to various artists that he admired and asked that they try them out. Among the recipients were H.C. Westermann, Ed Paschke and Ed Ruscha. He had originally intended to exhibit the works the three artists made on his paper for his final graduate thesis but after the review committee insisted his show must include his own work, he made large, colorful “quilts” with scraps of his handmade paper sewn together. After the show, the quilts were beaten back into paper pulp and reused in subsequent projects. 

In 1974, Joe established the Upper U.S. Papermill in nearby Oregon, Wisconsin. He continued to augment the experience he had gained in Madison with trips to commercial handmade paper mills in England while also organizing the first handmade papermakers conference in the U.S. in order to create a network for professionals. At the mill, artists such as Ellen Lanyon, Alan Shields and Sam Gilliam were invited to experiment and collaborate on projects while staying at Joe’s house. Shields’ visits were always memorable. As recounted by one of Joe’s daughters, “He always brought an old leather doctor’s bag filled with assorted nail polish and painted a small work of art on each of our fingernails. He also sewed, embroidered and made beautiful beaded jewelry.” The unconventional materials were a welcome sight at the Papermill. New techniques were constantly being explored, especially while the pulp was wet, to incorporate seeds, glitter, string and other collage elements. At other times sheets were formed in irregular shapes and sizes and then layered together. Many times, the finished sheets were then taken to Jones Road Printshop, run by Joe’s best friend and former professor Bill Weege, for the final printing. 

Joe’s work in the studio as well as his various teaching positions in printmaking, papermaking and book-binding, mainly at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had earned him both an outstanding reputation and the catchy moniker “Prince of Pulp”. In 1980, he accepted the position of director at the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture, relocating with his family out of Wisconsin, first to Maine and then to New York, where Skowhegan’s headquarters were located. While the job only lasted one year, it provided him access to a new group of artists, which included Chuck Close, who he began collaborating with on editioned works. Close, impressed by Joe’s ingenuity, encouraged Pace Gallery owners, Arne Glimcher and Dick Solomon, to hire Joe to run the gallery’s print shop. Joe readily took on the opportunity and began extending his collaborations to projects with Pace artists Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg as well as other artists outside of the gallery, whose projects were then published under the name Spring Street Workshop. 

Joe remained at Pace throughout the 80s and 90s and though he continued to live and work in New York, he kept strong ties to Wisconsin and was a founder and board member of Tandem Press in Madison. He often brought artists from New York to Madison to work at the studio and after his death in 1995, Tandem Press established the Joseph Wilfer Visiting Artist Endowment Fund in his memory. 

Known and well-liked by all for his charisma, enthusiasm and innovation, Joe was an unparalleled individual, encouraging the artists and artisans he collaborated with to achieve new heights in their work. His workshops were always welcoming, creative environments that allowed for experimentation and happy accidents, conversation and laughter, and of course, his annual Tom and Jerry Christmas Party. Fondly remembered by many, he facilitated the work of some of contemporary art’s most famous creatives and always provided unsurpassed expertise and optimism in everything he did.  

Joe Wilfer with Chuck Close at Pace workshop. Photo courtesy of Pace Prints.

Alfred Leslie

Alfred Leslie was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1927. After serving in the U. S. Coast Guard, he studied at New York University under the G. I. Bill, and later at Pratt and the Art Students League. During the 1950s, Leslie was part of the historic Ninth Street Show, curated by Leo Castelli, had five solo shows at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 16 Americans exhibition, all the while receiving great praise for his more geometric variety of Abstract Expressionism. Leslie was immersed in the social, political and cultural changes of the day, balancing roles as a painter, a writer and a filmmaker. The works of today’s literary giants – then relatively unknown – Jean-Paul Sartre, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others were featured in Leslie’s 1960 single-issue review The Hasty Papers, an edgy, anarchic commentary. Leslie’s studio was the arena for a nearly continuous series of art happenings, performances, musical improvisations and parties. His movie Pull My Daisy, co-directed with Robert Frank in 1959, is a landmark of the American underground film movement. It was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1996. Leslie’s work is in numerous museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Walker Art Center, Museum of Modern Art, and The Art Institute of Chicago.

A life of tangents is an appropriate description for Alfred Leslie, not only because his form of Abstract Expressionism was more geometric than his peers, but also because he was constantly reinventing his artistic practice. The artist has always relied on intuition. His canvases and collages of the 1950s, emphasized color, depth, and texture. They included Leslie in what was regarded as the second generation of Abstract Expressionists, namely Joan Brown, Al Held, Norman Bluhm, Michael Goldberg, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell. Leslie’s canvases 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. His collages demonstrate a similar intensity. Sharp bands of colors are applied and then bisected with ragged pieces of paper and board, fastened to the collage with tape, staples, nails, rivets and a variety of paint-types. Leslie emphatically dug into these layers, revealing many surfaces and imbue the works with texture and depth. He broke away from Abstract Expressionism in the early 1960s, shifting his focus to monochrome realistic portraits, color portraits and independent films.

Auction Results Alfred Leslie