Critic, Curator, Dandy: Edward Leffingwell, 1941 to 2014
New York-based critic, curator and longtime champion of contemporary art Edward Leffingwell died August 5 of cardiac arrest after a lengthy struggle with Parkinson’s disease, according to his brother, Thomas. He was 72. A cosmopolitan of astringent, forthright wit, Leffingwell was an astute writer about art and artists who relished recounting his own extravagant experiences in the art world. Somewhat of a dandy, he was always immaculately turned out, in notable contrast to the majority of artists he befriended in the rough and tumble of downtown Manhattan and Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s.
Born in 1941, in Sharon, Pa., Leffingwell took art classes as a teenager at the nearby Butler Institute in Youngstown, Ohio, stimulating the interests in art making and museums that would eventually define his life. Arriving in New York in the mid-1960s, he became a regular at Max’s Kansas City and Warhol’s Factory, enthralled by the iconoclastic spirit of Lower Manhattan. His friends at the time ranged from the likes of political activist Abbie Hoffman to Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, Warhol superstar Ultra Violet to sculptor John Chamberlain (who became a lifelong friend). He was equally at home in the art world of Los Angeles, also spending much time there. In 1978, he returned home to care for his mother and to finish his schooling, earning a B.A. at Youngstown State University in 1982 and an M.A. in art history from the University of Cincinnati in 1984.
In 1983, he presented “Chinese Chance: An American Collection” at the Butler, his first curatorial project, featuring the collection of Mickey Ruskin of Max’s Kansas City, who had recently died of a drug overdose. It was followed by an exhibition by Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner at the University of Cincinnati. In 1985, Leffingwell returned to New York as the program director, then chief curator of P.S. 1, hired by Alanna Heiss, its founding director. Heiss said that Leffingwell preferred artists of “extreme vision” whose work his own vision would make coherent. He curated shows of James Rosenquist, Neil Williams and Michael Tracy. One of his most notable exhibitions for P.S. 1 featured John McCracken, the first comprehensive survey of the Californian minimalist sculptor on the East Coast. Leffingwell often introduced little known artists from California and elsewhere to New York. It seemed natural, then, when in 1988 he was appointed director of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Art Park. His most ambitious venture for the gallery was “LAX: The Los Angeles Exhibition” in 1992, a seven-venue biennial installed throughout the city, conceived as a model for future exhibitions. He returned to New York in 1992 after his job was eliminated due to budgetary cuts. In 1997, he curated an important, critically acclaimed exhibition of Jack Smith at P.S. 1, renewing interest in the provocative artist who is now acknowledged as a major influence in the history of performance art, experimental filmmaking and queer cinema.
In 1989, Leffingwell became a contributor to Art in America, writing hundreds of reviews and articles over a 20-year span. He also began to visit Brazil with increasing frequency as his interest in South American art and his love of the country deepened. He was named the magazine’s corresponding editor from Brazil, reporting on six of the São Paulo biennials and becoming an authority on contemporary Brazilian art. Elizabeth C. Baker, former editor-in-chief of Art in America, credited his curatorial experience and acumen for his ability to write on “an unusually broad range of artists. He brought us things we didn’t know about and he was willing to tackle almost any subject we might suggest.”
He wrote numerous essays and monographs; one of his last published essays was a contribution to AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE (1960-2007), a catalogue documenting more than 40 years of the work of Lawrence Weiner, co-published by LA MOCA and the Whitney Museum in 2007.
For much of the time after he returned to New York from L.A., Ed lived in a tiny walk-up apartment on Sullivan Street, elegantly jam-packed with ornate and curious objects, artworks, books and the memorabilia he had acquired during an eventful, multifaceted life. It was his castle, where he cooked bouillabaisse for friends and entertained them with endless, often digressive, sometimes scandalously humorous anecdotes about the art world—true and not—enjoying himself immensely.