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Honoring Artist June Leaf Through Her Own Words

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June Leaf George Chinsee

With June Leaf’s passing on Monday, the art world bids farewell to a distinguished figure whose life mirrored the expansiveness and originality of her work.

Born in Chicago in 1929, Leaf left her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago prematurely. Convinced of her artistic calling, she attended the Bauhaus School but departed after just three months, moving to Paris for further self-study. There, she acquired skills from notable artists like Paul Klee and Mark Tobey. Her early encounters with figures like futurist Buckminster Fuller and engagement in graffiti in the 1940s set the tone for her far-reaching creative endeavors.

Leaf began to explore robotics in her art during the 1970s, exemplified by her 1975 watercolor “Computer Woman in Landscape.” When her husband, Frank, documented the Rolling Stones’ 1972 American tour, “Cocksucker Blues,” she influenced him to embrace Polaroid photography, a medium she often used for writing on her photos.

In a 2016 interview, Leaf attributed her relentless work ethic to her mother, the tireless family breadwinner, showcasing resilience by assisting in her father-in-law’s tavern and liquor store. Even in her elderly years, Leaf demonstrated this work ethic, energetically moving around her studio to illustrate her points, even carrying an antique Singer sewing machine.

Leaf’s agility prompted her physical therapist to remark that she moved like someone raised on a farm, though she wasn’t. Her keen understanding of movement, partly from her childhood ballet studies, manifested in her art where she often depicted figures in space, ensuring their mobility. “So when I draw, I am dancing,” Leaf explained.

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June Leaf in her Bleecker Street studio in 2016. George Chinsee

Leaf’s influential works are preserved in renowned institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For her exhibition “June Leaf: Thought Is Infinite,” she entrusted the curation to Carter Foster, an unusual act she considered as essential to artistic bravery and taking chances. “Courage is part of being an artist,” she remarked.

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“The Pain of Growing a Wing” by June Leaf. George Chinsee

Her 44-year marriage to the renowned photographer Robert Frank, who predeceased her in 2019, was both a personal and artistic partnership. In 2016, she reflected on their relationship, being candid about its strength and significance: “I thought today I should talk about it. I should announce it. I should not run away and say, ‘Oh, she’s married to Robert Frank.’ Yes, she’s married to Robert Frank and she’s still going.”

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Inside June Leaf’s studio. George Chinsee

During an interview, Leaf shared insights into her career, marriage, and aspirations. She spoke about the search embedded in her work: “There’s a lot that goes into my drawings and that’s what I saw. It’s a search. You can see that I’m searching. I realize that I don’t see that often in paintings.”

She discussed her decision to allow Foster to curate her exhibition, emphasizing a detachment from the typical art world concerns of reputation and success: “I just liked that this person was touched, I left him alone, and I just kept working.”

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Leaf’s studio was in the four-floor former flophouse that she bought with her husband Robert Frank for $40,000 decades ago. George Chinsee

Smartphones brought renewed admiration for Frank’s photography, which Leaf acknowledged: “When we sit outside, people walk by and practically get on their knees. I understand. It’s a revolution, like the printing press. Photography is the same. Robert elevated that creative process to the level of art.”

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The artist was still lugging around a Singer sewing machine into her 80s in her downtown studio. George Chinsee

Her life with Frank in a four-floor former flophouse on Bleecker Street, which they bought for $40,000, brought unique challenges and inspirations. Reflecting on their meeting, Leaf recounted their initial interaction and her guarded impression of him, developing a deep bond over time.

Leaf spoke fondly of their life together in Moab in Cape Breton, describing it as a new beginning away from New York: “I felt like I was finally with the love of my life. I don’t know how advanced he was along those lines, but I had enough for both of us. Now maybe from this you make art.”

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A photo by June Leaf. George Chinsee

Despite their deep connection, Leaf noted that they rarely discussed their work: “It’s like, it’s not important,” instead finding joy in simpler shared experiences, like observing nature or discussing their health.

Reflecting on an early collage from 1949, Leaf remarked, “I was only 18 years old. It’s the Chicago Tribune and I see it as a castle.”

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A sculptor by the artist. George Chinsee

On painting Allen Ginsberg, she simply said, “He wanted me to and I wanted to.”

Leaf also addressed the legal dispute around Frank’s unreleased Rolling Stones documentary, attributing it to its depiction of drug use: “I guess they didn’t like that drugs were shown.”

Assessing her own place in the art world, Leaf valued personal integrity over public acclaim: “Maybe I don’t want public acclaim. I want to survive with that integrity that is so precious to me. Living right is very important — loving right. It’s not that I’m such a great humanitarian or lover, but in my world, there is a right way to live with someone.”

Source: WWD