June Leaf, Artist of Allegory and Motion, Dies at 94

Artist June Leaf, celebrated for her experimental and intuitive curiosity for motion, gestures, and the female form, died on Monday, July 1, in her New York City home at the age of 94. Leaf’s death was confirmed by her agent and close friend, Andrea Glimcher of Hyphen advisory, who said the artist had recently been diagnosed with gastric cancer.

Leaf was born in Chicago in 1929 and knew from a very young age that she wanted to work with her hands, especially inspired by watching her mother sew. She recalled in a 2016 interview with Hyperallergic that she had asked her mother to draw her a high-heeled shoe and proceeded to describe everything that was wrong with it, soon learning that she must take matters into her own hands in order to transcribe the world around her. That lesson expanded during grade school, when she developed an affinity for drawing but found out that the other half of the battle was making others see her work.

At the age of 18, the artist briefly attended the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, founded by László Moholy-Nagy and branded as the New Bauhaus school. But she was more enthused with the visiting artists at the school rather than the program itself, and left to develop her practice in Paris for a year in 1948. She returned to Chicago and received her Bachelor’s degree in Art Education at Roosevelt University in 1954 and a Master’s in the same field at the Institute of Design that same year before heading back to Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship for painting from 1956 to 1958.

Leaf moved to New York City in 1960, making a splash with her grandiose compositions and expanded three-dimensional media at Allan Frumkin Gallery. “The Vermeer Box” (1965), “Ascension of the Pig Lady” (1968), and “Woman Theater” (1968) are among the defining works that marked the artist’s crucial forays into sculpture and dimensionality, the latter of which having received a direct praise from art critic Hilton Kramer, who described Leaf in a review of her solo exhibition as “a poet with a taste and talent for complex images.”

The artist lived and worked around the Lower East Side, and upon her romantic involvement with photographer Robert Frank, the pair sought out a space in Nova Scotia to get away from the distractions and hierarchies of New York City and hone in on their work. Frank and Leaf bought a place in the small town of Mabou on Cape Breton Island and nestled into the community while devoting uninterrupted time to their practices whenever they left the city. The pair would marry in 1975 and remain together until Frank’s death in 2019.

Regardless of the public appreciation for her, Glimcher, the artist’s agent and friend, maintains that “Leaf’s audience was herself.”

“She was so focused on the process, which she might even call ‘the journey,’ of what she was doing,” Glimcher told Hyperallergic. “And she depended on herself for her work — heating and soldering metal, twisting wire with the sensitivity of an embroiderer, painting herself into exhaustion on a daily basis.”

Fond of ballet and theater, Leaf was determined to convey and include motion in her art — from interactive kinetic works like her series of painted fabric scrolls on lever cranks to her figurative paintings and drawings where the presence of the hand sings in the tactile application and manipulation of her media. Each stroke, swipe, and scratch is of equal importance to the subject matter she rendered. In her 2016 interview, she described being fixated on including certain figures, or “characters” in her work until she was “finally released from them.”

“I am a painter who had to have a tactile experience with the world,” Leaf said.

After decades of a comfortable level of attention in group and solo exhibitions across the US and Canada, Leaf was thrust into the spotlight in a 2016 retrospective primarily consisting of her works on paper at the Whitney Museum of American Art, followed by a 2022 solo show at Ortuzar Projects gallery.

“Leaf is remembered by all she encountered for her independent spirit, mischievous humor and all-encompassing art practice, in which everything she touched seemed to come alive,” the gallery said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic.

The artist’s work is currently included in Mother Lode, a group exhibition at James Cohan Gallery’s Manhattan location on view through July 21, as well as Double Threshold at Winter Street Gallery in Edgartown, Massachusetts, until July 7. Glimcher also noted that in 2025, a traveling retrospective of Leaf’s work will make its way from the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, to New York’s Grey Art Museum and the Allen Memorial Art Gallery in Oberlin, Ohio.

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