Saul Leiter: Finding Beauty is a first glimpse of the scope of work to be revealed by the Saul Leiter Foundation. The Foundation was recently established in his New York studio following his death at the age of 89 in 2013.
The London gallery exhibition at HackelBury Fine Art features painted works on paper, including painted photographs, notebook covers and boards torn from sketchpads and watercolour blocks. All very small in scale, the tiniest fragments are raw edged female portraits, which show a particularly intimate and personal glimpse into the interior world of Leiter’s studio apartment. The vision of beauty and poetry he found on the busy and gritty streets of New York in the 1950’s is well known. However, his earliest project, the watercolour and gouache paintings which he worked on continuously from the 1940’s until his death, is still largely unknown.
Rather than chasing fame, fortune and artistic recognition, it was enough for him to live a simple life, to ‘keep the lights on’ as he often said. To live life as an artist on his own terms, and for it’s own end – no more, no less. This spirit comes through in everything he created, in particular here the irrepressible nature of his relationship with paint, and his absolute delight in colour. Leiter created many conventionally ‘finished’ works that can be seen in the exhibition, but his enjoyment of painting often spilled over to every surface in his everyday life – letters received and sent, the covers of books and sketchpads, even the flattened insides of grocery boxes; he used everything, and kept everything. There was a democracy in his choice and range of materials which elevated the everyday. His refusal to edit his output in any way also denied any series or piece more value than the others – his archive in that sense becoming a work of art in itself. Many of his works and studies were created incrementally over a period of decades, a few brushstrokes at a time; a lifelong installation piece that deserves to be uncovered and enjoyed at a similar pace.
The scale of the works and the exquisite detail does ask that we step in closer, and doesn’t by any means shout to be heard… just like Saul, if you had the pleasure of meeting him, with an eyebrow raised, a shrug of his shoulders and a quiet chuckle at the absurdity of modern life.