A Visit with June Leaf and Robert Frank

On a particular February 2011, afternoon, I spent part of the day in June Leaf’s studio, watching her work, and listening to her talk about her work. As I sat in a wooden office chair, I watched Leaf busily untangling some strands of stiff wire with her bare hands. The wire was pinched in a vice. She was making a frame for one of her sculptures: a three-to-four foot high circular stairway enclosed on three sides by aluminum. You could see the stairway reflected in the shiny surface of the aluminum. A curious piece. After loosening the wire, she took it out of the vice and began to untangle it with her hands.

The piece is unfinished but has progressed enough to enable her to explain how she plans to finish it. She may decide at the last minute to remove the stairway and replace it with some figures, or create a backdrop and place a man and a woman against it under the stairway.

Robert Frank and June Leaf
photograph of Robert Frank and June Leaf by Erik La Prade

Whether she is preparing for an exhibition or just working on a painting or sculpture, Leaf tries to work in the studio almost every day. The studio is her sanctuary and the hub of her creative life. The artist June Leaf is originally from Chicago, where she was born in August 1929. She is married to the photographer Robert Frank, whose book, The Americans, is now a classic work in the history of photography.

Frank and Leaf met sometime in 1968, at a party. At the time, Frank was married to Mary Frank, and Leaf was married to a musician and living uptown, in Washington Heights. Frank was living on West 86th Street with Mary Frank and their two children, Pablo and Andrea. According to most chronologies, Frank divorced Mary in 1969 or 1970. In 1975, Frank and Leaf were married. By then, their lives had become a creative symbiosis. To this day, their work remains separate but overlapping.

In 1970, Leaf and Frank bought a house in Mabou, Nova Scotia. They generally live in Mabou from May until October or November, then return to Manhattan and spend the winter in the building they own.

When they are home in Manhattan, they host (sometimes on a daily basis), visiting friends, curators, book publishers, and sometimes, strangers who have asked to meet Frank and were granted a visit. This constant stream of activity creates a drain on them emotionally and physically and is one of the main reasons, Frank and Leaf are eager to leave New York by the late spring.

They will break up their routine by taking a trip to Switzerland to visit a particular spa that Frank likes, or to see old famous places, as Frank and June once wrote to me in a postcard. In the last few years, they have taken trips to a small town in Arizona, or short, overnight trips to visit Toms River, New Jersey. Except for their annual trip to Mabou, they travel much less than they used to these days. At one point, Frank wanted to move back to Switzerland for good, but June did not like the idea.

They live and share a common work space, but generally work independently of each other. Frank has, nevertheless, photographed Leaf’s sculptures for a number of her catalogues, and in the early 1970s, Leaf was instrumental in encouraging Frank to draw and write words on his photographs. Leaf also created the cover of Frank’s 1972 book, The Lines of my Hand, for which she photocopied the palm of her hand facing outwards. In 1972, Leaf returned from Japan, and brought back a Canon Super-8 film camera. It is the camera Frank began to film a number of his 1970s movies.

Even if Leaf is travelling in Europe or out West, she will sometimes draw or sketch a scene or an idea on paper. Her faculties for observing people and objects are a searchlight that constantly illuminates areas she finds interesting. When working in her New York studio, materials and unfinished works will accumulate and be scattered on the floor, worktables, benches, or off to the side by the walls. Unfinished paintings, too, may be hanging on the walls or on an easel, while sculptures are also scattered in various stages of completion and crowd formerly open areas of the studio.

In a back room of June’s studio there is a store room with painting racks containing old paintings or sculptures never sold or finished, or once exhibited and now retired. Some of these paintings include examples of her early pictures. A break-out painting, done when Leaf was 24 years old, is called Arcade Women, 1956. (Now in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago). Leaf explained to me, how at that time, the mid-1950s, artists were too caught-up in Abstract Expressionism and not really working with perspective as she was. She found herself frustrated and unable to paint her picture. In a dream, she found the solution, woke up and immediately began painting the images from her dream. She painted a study of a woman sitting in a chair intersected by two lines. This gave her the key and she went on to finish the painting.

June Leaf sculpture
sculpture by June Leaf, photograph by Erik La Prade

As an aside, the critic Hayden Herrera claims in her 1985 memorial essay on the Chicago artist Seymour Rosofsky that Leaf’s Arcade Women is the model for a painting by Rosofsky titled Unemployment Agency, 1958. Herrera writes, “Both paintings use anonymous characters in hats, sitting in straight-back, red chairs with their backs to the viewer. Rosofsky’s painting has more nuance and poetry than Leaf’s. It is more European. For all its Parisian post-war pessimism, however, the image is insistently American, recalling bleak urban visions like George Tooker’s 1956 painting, Government Bureau.”

Herrera misses the mystery in Leaf’s Arcade Women, and Leaf’s ability to compartmentalize and isolate an individual. It is closer to Tooker’s feeling of urban paranoia then Rosofsky’s work and captures our attention in an unrelenting manner. Arcade Women questions the viewer’s realistic point of view. Are we looking at a figure sitting in an office or are we looking into the mind of the figure sitting in front of us?

June walked into her store-room and found the original study for Arcade Women, framed. I pulled it out of the rack and carried it back into her studio. It is a large drawing on blue paper in a wood frame. This painting, among others, made her reputation in Chicago.

I returned the painting to the racks and we agreed to go to the restaurant next door for lunch. June pauses, studying her studio floor, then tells me about the figure in the floor and how she’s thinking of painting it. She gets a brush and dips it in red paint, gets down on the floor and begins to highlight the figure she sees in the wood. It is small but becomes more pronounced as she works on it. She stops after five minutes to see how it will be after the red paint dries.

After lunch, we returned to her studio. She says I should say hello to Robert. In fact, I have brought two books in the hope that he would sign them.

There is a small, wooden stairway in the backroom of June’s studio, which leads upstairs to the top floor, four stories above the street. In the early 1970s when Frank and June originally moved into this building and lived on one of the floors, it was still a functioning flophouse, the remaining rooms occupied by derelicts. Frank mentioned to the building’s owner that he wanted to buy the building if it was ever up for sale. Eventually, Frank was able to buy it.

Today, the building must be over a hundred years old. The interior still retains a rough and worn look with Leaf’s studio downstairs and Frank’s work area(s) upstairs. Some rooms and walls have been painted with pictures hung on them, while others are unadorned.

The third-floor landing contains a small room with a bed, adjacent to a large desk, which serves as one of Frank’s work areas. The windows face a backyard behind another building. Some of the shelves are crowded with toys, postcards, perhaps souvenirs from their travels, or gifts from friends or visitors. There is a small collection of about ten box cameras sitting on a shelf to the right of the doorway. The top floor off the stairway opens into their kitchen area. Walking through the kitchen, you enter their living room. Three windows face the street. A well-worn couch with a few blankets on it is situated in the middle of the room about ten feet from a working fireplace. Frank sometimes takes a nap on it. Facing this couch is a wall-sized bookcase.

Left of the fireplace is a small table-top about four to five feet long; it has photographic prints on it, a light box, one or two loups to look at negatives; it is one of Frank’s editing areas where he decides what negatives he wants to make prints from.

The eastern wall has photos of friends or artworks by June pinned onto the wall. There is a wooden stepladder in front of the wall, leading up to a loft containing a bed; another sleeping area doubles as a storage area.

June mentions to Robert about signing my books and he says “okay.” So Frank and I sit at the kitchen table as June goes into the living room to chat with Frank’s assistant, Ayumi. Frank leafs through a first edition of his beautiful book, London/Wales, admiring the way the photographs are laid out on each page, with very little text. Robert remarks, “Boy, this is a terrific job.”

Next, I hand him the exhibition catalogue, Robert Frank’s The Americans: LOOKING IN. (National Gallery of Art, Washington) 2009. Frank likes the way the contact sheets of the original negatives of The Americans have been reproduced in the back of the catalogue. Frank comments on the catalogue’s essays and on how, “there isn’t that much to say about it”.

After signing the book for me, we start talking about the Southwest. June and he recently returned from a trip to Arizona. They stayed at a place called Casa Grande, outside of Tucson. June likes Arizona but Frank finds there is nothing to do there, particularly at night.

Frank asks me if I like Las Vegas and I tell him very much: “the show girls, the gambling,the twenty-four hours of non-stop action.” He tells me a story of how he was in Las Vegas in 1962. He was standing outside on the street, watching the people, when a man emerged from a casino, counting his silver dollars. He saw Frank standing around and walked over to him. Frank said, “I looked like such a loser, the guy offered me some dollars. I told him no thanks. But I was amused.”

I asked Frank if he thought The Americans would have been a different book if Faulkner had written the introduction instead of Kerouac. Frank said, “I don’t know. He never answered back. Faulkner was heavy where Kerouac was airy. I was lucky to meet Kerouac, but it made a problem in my relationship with Walker Evans. Evans was a snob. He was sympathetic in that book with Agee, but he was a snob.” I mention how Let Us Now Praise Famous Men only sold six hundred copies when it was first published and remaindered copies were destroyed or pulped to make paper for the war effort.

Frank then mentioned how much he enjoyed reading the letters between Kerouac and Ginsberg. He admired their energy. June asks Frank about his photographing the Elia Kazan film, River Wild, and he says, “It was a job for Esquire Magazine, but the photographs were never published.” She asked him where the photos were now, but he didn’t remember. Frank does remembers how Montgomery Cliff was mean to him because he hated the camera click; “Maybe I was using a noisy camera. So, Kazan told Cliff to calm down. It wasn’t a good film.”

It was now six o’clock. I pack up my books and Frank, June and Ayumi, all of us descend the steps and exit the building, walking through June’s studio toward the door. I glance at a few of June’s paintings that have images of ladders in them. I get an insight into the spiritual side of her work: the rise up toward something.

–Erik La Prade