Alice Neel (1900-1984) is always described as an artist that was slow to find recognition. It’s true, but I think it’s also true that her brilliance was of a kind that is only achieved through maturity and persistence. Our culture likes to think that a genius is a genius, that they must be incandescent in their emergence. If you pass 30 or 40 and you’re not a star, you should give up, pack it in, and do something useful for a change. And maybe that makes sense if you think art is all about fresh concepts and the iconoclasm of a new generation defying the elders. But what if you’re trying to do something very deep and subtle, and nearly impossible to master?
I’m not saying Neel’s early work wasn’t strong, and I’m not saying her sex and her devotion to figuration in an era where the big money was on abstraction didn’t delay her acclaim. Her early work shows the influence of the Ashcan School of socially conscious realism, as well as of surrealism and psychological expressionism of the kind that Munch and Ensor developed. Her paintings of the 1920’s and 1930’s are dark with lots of black paint, and heavy with romantic angst, symbolism, and working class politics.
Those were the radical art fashions of the era. Neel does them well, but you can see hints that the real essence of her talent lies in her intense focus on the individual human subject. At the time, she was young, and dedicated to the romantic ideal of the rebellious and bohemian artist, which she lived fully, complete with abusive marriages, nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts.
She persuaded a diverse collection of people to sit for her – her neighbors, her bohemian artist and writer friends, children and old people, naked nudes and dressed-up dandies, the uptight and the laid-back, the pretentious and the naïve. She found nothing more fascinating than to try to capture in paint something of what it was like to be with these people. She said, “Like Chekhov, I am a collector of souls.”
Alice Neel painted directly from life, and directly on the canvas, without designs or preliminary studies. She said, “I do not pose my sitters. I do not deliberate and then concoct… Before painting, when I talk to the person, they unconsciously assume their most characteristic pose, which in a way involves all their character and social standing – what the world has done to them and their retaliation.” Doing a painting of someone was for her an interaction with that person.
The old saying is “Every painter paints himself”, and for most portrait painters this is a limitation. It means they project something on the subject, some fantasy or ideal. For Neel, it means she paints how she and her subject encounter each other, in the moment as they look at each other. The directness of the look, and the directness of the act of painting, capture the uncanny aliveness that Neel’s pictures embody.
In the silent home movie above you can see some of how Neel starts painting, and how she develops the canvas. Alice’s son Hartley shot this film as she was painting her daughter-in-law Ginny. She starts out with a black line drawing in thinned paint, sure and direct. There is no measuring, no roughing in. It’s distorted and out of proportion, and that doesn’t matter at all. As she continues to paint, areas of color are filled in here and there, seemingly haphazardly, but with a sense of painterly dynamics.
The eyes are usually enlarged, making intense connection to the painter, and through her, to the viewer. The hands are often oddly small yet expressive, with snaky fingers grasping the world, holding on tight or draping lazily. Background elements are sometimes highly textural and at other times they are left as bare indications. In the later work the use of unfinished areas is masterful.
Her pictures of people are distorted in proportion, but they are not distorted by idealism or sentimentality, nor by judgment or an agenda. They are open, clear-eyed, compassionate, and realistic. The probing engagement is the same whether the subject is a child or a power broker. Some of her pictures could almost be caricatures, except that they are made with an openness to her subject that is foreign to caricature.
The riveting quality of Neel’s paintings convinces me that there is no greater subject for a painter than the individual human being, and that symbolism and theory and “statements” are nothing but obstacles to true seeing. Why do so few serious artists in our day attempt it? The portrait is considered a fusty genre, suitable for sentimentalists and satirists. It doesn’t challenge the status quo as the contemporary artist is expected to do. It has no intellectual component. But perhaps all that is just to rationalize avoiding a challenge that is extremely difficult to pull off, a challenge that engages not just the mind but the whole being of the artist.
Alice Neel never stopped believing in herself, even as the institutional art world ignored her. She had to wait for her moment of fame, which finally came with the rise of the feminist movement. They came looking for the great neglected female artists, and for an approach to art that countered the macho culture of abstract expressionism and pop art. Neel’s deeply embodied, personally engaged work, with its pregnant women and babies, its frank and unheroic male nudes, fit the bill. She bristled a bit at being assigned the role of feminist art icon, but she reveled in her late-life fame.
The illustrations here really don’t do justice to the original paintings. They lose the subtleties of the color and the sense of scale, which in the later work tends to be half life size or bigger. Last week I was thrilled to be able to look at some original Alice Neel oils in an exhibit at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan. It’s a three person show with pioneering African American artists Benny Andrews and Bob Thompson, whose work is also very much worth looking at, and it’s up for just another week, through April 7, 2012. The asking price for all the Neels is about half a million dollars each. I think even when she was 50 years old and living in poverty, Alice Neel knew her work was that valuable.
If you’re interested in learning more about Alice Neel, I recommend the excellent documentary on her made by her Grandson, Andrew Neel.
All the images here were found on the web, and clicking on the images links back to the site where I found them.