DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Collector of Souls: Alice Neel


Nancy and Olivia, 1967, by Alice Neel

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?

Alice Neel, 1944, photo by Sam Brody

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.

Degenerate Madonna, 1930, by Alice Neel

Kenneth Fearing (poet, founder of Partisan Review), 1935, by Alice Neel

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.

Ballet Dancer, 1950, by Alice Neel

The Last Sickness (Alice's mother), 1953, by Alice Neel

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.”

Two Girls, Spanish Harlem, 1959, by Alice Neel

Robert Smithson (earthworks artist), 1962, by Alice Neel

Sherry Speeth (mathematician), 1964, by Alice Neel

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.

Fuller Brush Man, 1965, by Alice Neel

Hartley (Alice's son), 1965, by Alice Neel

Charlotte Willard (art critic & author), 1967, by Alice Neel

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.

Andy Warhol (artist), 1970, by Alice Neel

Jackie Curtis (performer, Warhol superstar) and Ritta Redd, 1970, by Alice Neel

The Family (John Gruen, Jane Wilson and Julia), 1970, by Alice Neel. Gruen was a music, dance and art critic, Wilson a painter, and Julia is now director of the Keith Haring foundation.

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.

Carmen and Judy, 1972, by Alice Neel

John Perreault (artist, poet & critic), 1972, by Alice Neel

The Soyer Brothers (Moses and Raphael, artists), 1973, by Alice Neel


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.

Isabel Bishop (artist), 1974, by Alice Neel

Margaret Evans Pregnant, 1978, by Alice Neel

Geoffrey Hendricks (Fluxus artist) and Brian, 1978, by Alice Neel

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.

Self Portrait, 1980, by Alice Neel

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.

Alice Neel, 1970's, photographer unknown

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.

Check out this brief clip on Neel from ART/New York.  One of the art critics that’s interviewed is John Perreault, whose nude portrait by Neel is included in this post.

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.


Mother Nature, Abstract Expressionist: Photography by Dan Fen

Fohoco, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

One of the gifts I received this holiday season was a collection of hundreds (thousands, actually!) of digital photographs by my youngest brother, Dan.  Dan lives in the Mojave Desert area, and regularly goes hiking in the canyons, hills, and valleys of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California, with his partner Jill, their dogs, and his camera.  All of the photos seen here were taken within 90 minutes drive from his house.  Dan has a great eye for the abstract patterns of nature.  I’m devoting this last post of 2011 to sharing Dan’s vision with the readers of Drawing Life.  The vortex of color below is a close-up detail of a living tree.

Votr, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Dan rarely prints his photos, and prefers that they be viewed as digital slide shows, full screen on a large monitor in a dark room, as sequences.  The more abstract series are quite hypnotic seen in that way, and I hope Dan will soon put some of his photos on line for full-screen slide show viewing.  For the format of this blog, I’ve selected a few of my favorites, reduced them in size, and mixed them up.  (Apologies, Dan!)  The originals have extremely fine textural details that are lost in the smaller images here, but the smaller size seems to emphasize the compositional qualities of the images.

Sheep Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Some of these close-up studies of rocks, trees and metal remind me of some of the images of the planet Mars that we have seen recently from the HiRISE camera launched by NASA and the University of Arizona.

Fohoco, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

You can also look at these pictures as though they were abstract expressionist paintings.  To my eye, the subtlety of the colors and the variety and complexity of the patterns surpass the masters of the New York School.

Sheep Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

The desert mountains and canyons are famous for their grand vistas, but Dan looks closely at details one might easily overlook, seeing the beauty of all phases of the cycles of nature, including erosion and decay.

Tree, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

These markings remind me of petroglyphs.  This is another close textural examination of a tree.

Noba, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

The landscape in Dan’s area is arid and much of it is dominated by bare stone.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t wildly colorful.  Look at these rocks streaked in white and red.

Buffington Pockets, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

In the picture below, the sun shines through the grass from behind, making the clumps shine like Fourth of July sparklers all around the jagged branches of a dead tree.

Sheep Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

This is another detail of the tree seen in the second picture in this post.  I wonder how it gets all these colors!

Votr, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

The landscape in wet places tends to have a lot of soft shapes and vivid greens.  The landscape in the desert leans more towards the spiky and the reddish.

Buffington Pockets, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Time is an artist!

Fohoco, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Sometimes the long view is just as much an abstract pattern as the close view.

Spring Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Organic growth, the cycles of the seasons, and the ravages of time all go into creating these expressions of vitality and struggle.  Dan’s art is to find and isolate them, and to share them with those who can’t be there, or wouldn’t notice these details if they were.

Cluptr, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Who says death is not a creative force?

Buffington Pockets, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Growth and destruction, all of it is part of the eternal process of change, and it all coexists as layers settle upon layers and surfaces scratch and peel.

Sheep Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Noba, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Fohoco, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

No architect’s dream of clean lines and noble geometry can compare to the fractal magic of living chaos!

Spring Mountains, 2011, photo by Dan Fen

Thanks, Dan, for sharing your photos with me and for allowing me to share them with my readers.


Freudian Analysis

Double Portrait, 1986, by Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud, who just died on July 20, 2011, devoted his long career to painting figures and portraits from life, perfectly ignoring all the art-world trends of his era.

Bella, 1987, by Lucian Freud

Many of his images are of people and/or animals sleeping.  He always painted directly from live models, often friends or family members rather than professionals, and he worked very slowly, so the sleeping poses may be an accommodation to the models.  I am struck, though, by the sense of struggle and intensity in these works.  Freud’s paint has the writhing quality of Goya’s horrors or El Greco’s spiritual transports, but in pictures of people simply relaxing on beds and sofas.  I think the sense of agitation arises from Freud’s own restless struggle to see more deeply and to capture in paint the intensity of his own visual experience.  For Freud, every canvas was a wrestling match against a powerful foe.

Pregnant Girl, 1961, by Lucian Freud

The fleshiness of his painting can be a distraction.  I got a better understanding of  the energy of Freud’s searching eye by looking at his etchings, where the quality of movement stands out.  Most portraitists view their sitters across a distance.  Freud’s perceptual focus hikes over his subjects like a surveyor mapping a territory.  He treats the figure as a landscape, to be explored by touch and movement.

Head and Shoulders, 1982, etching by Lucian Freud

Freud loved animals, and he often shows his own dogs posing with his models.  He told William Feaver, who wrote a book about Freud’s work, “I’m really interested in people as animals.  Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason.  Because I can see more, and it’s also very exciting to see the forms repeating through the body and often the head as well.  I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals, as Pluto my whippet.”

Sunny Morning - Eight Legs, 1997, by Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, the progenitor of psychoanalysis.  Sigmund Freud spent hundreds of hours with his subjects lying on a couch, trying to penetrate the hidden recesses of the mind through dreams and free association.  Lucian Freud also spent hundreds of hours with his subjects lying on a couch, but he kept an intense focus on the surface.  I think he felt that the physical body, truly seen, could reveal hidden depths.  Surely Lucian Freud’s work reveals depths, although, as with Sigmund’s work, it could be argued that those depths belong to Freud more than they do to his subjects.

David Hockney; Lucian Freud, 2003, photo by David Dawson

Freud said, “My work is purely autobiographical… It is about myself and my surroundings. I work from people that interest me and that I care about, in rooms that I know.”  Given the necessity of spending a great deal of time with his sitters, he wouldn’t work with anyone unless he genuinely liked that person.  Still, he absolutely avoided any sentimentality or idealization.  Freud’s subjects had to accept that he would portray their every flaw, that he would reveal their mortality.

David Hockney, 2003, by Lucian Freud

While Freud, as far as I know, never worked from photographs, some of his models were photographed while posing for his paintings, which gives us an excellent way of seeing where he exaggerates and what he emphasizes.

Sue Tilley posing for Lucian Freud, 1995, photo by Bruce Bernard

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, by Lucian Freud

The painting above is one of Freud’s best-known works, having set a record for the highest price paid for a painting by a living artist when it was sold at Christie’s in 2008 for 33.6 million dollars.  Notice how much older the model appears in the painting than in the photograph.  He seems to have made her more obese and more splotchy.

Many figurative painters do the opposite, omitting bruises and calluses and visible veins, subtly idealizing the body.  And many people are repelled by Freud’s figures, with their sexuality and mortality so blatantly on display.  Speaking for myself, this is the very aspect of Freud’s work that gives it spiritual power.  It is the essence of the human condition that we are spiritual beings manifested in animal bodies that experience fear and desire, suffering and decay.  I see this as the quality of art that Federico Garcia Lorca calls duende, the life force intensified by the closeness of death.

Naked Man with Rat, 1977, by Lucian Freud

Freud’s earlier work, such as the portrait below of Lady Caroline Blackwood, lacks the blotchy impasto of his later work, but there is already a kind of magical realism, with enlarged eyes and expressive distortions.

Girl in Bed, 1952, by Lucian Freud

Freud said, “The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.”  You can see this principle not only in the individual works, but across the artist’s entire oeuvre.  The later work is unquestionably more abstract, the strokes wilder and freer, but they also have a living presence that is much stronger than in the earlier work.

Four Figures, 1991, etching by Lucian Freud


The Painter's Mother III, 1972, painting by Lucian Freud, and The Painter's Mother, 1982, etching by Lucian Freud

The face below is surely distorted, yet you can see the intensity of the artist’s perception in every thick stroke.  There is a kind of aura, a powerful presence that cannot be achieved by working from photographs and fretting over accuracy.

Esther, 1982, by Lucian Freud


Lucian Freud and model, 2004, photo by David Dawson

Freud said, “Perhaps when you have the sort of temperament that is always looking for flaws and trouble it might stop you from having what you always want, which is to be as audacious as possible. One has to find the courage to keep on trying not to paint in a stale or predictable way.”

Night Portrait, 1978, by Lucian Freud

I’ll conclude this post with two of my favorite Freud nudes.  Night Portrait, above, finds beauty in a pose that seems to be both resting and running, and in the textural contrast between the body and the quilt.  Naked Man, Back View, one of Freud’s many paintings of the model Leigh Bowery, also well known as a performance artist and costume designer, suggests an interior life through the turned-away display of a mountainous back.

Naked Man, Back View, 1992, by Lucian Freud

All the images in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the pictures links to the pages where I found them.  The Lucian Freud quotes were also found on the web.  All the quote sites seem to have a similar collection of Freud quotes, unfortunately not sourced.


Matisse the Deconstructionist

Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg, 1914, by Henri Matisse

The exhibit “Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917” is on view through October 11, 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The show features work from a brief period in the middle of Henri Matisse’s long career, roughly coinciding with the first World War.  It shows the artist engaged in a heroic struggle to transform his “decorative” style into something hard enough and grand enough to stand out in the twentieth century.

Traditional painters start rough and then labor to make their work more polished, more developed, more elaborate.  Matisse worked and reworked his canvases and sculptures to strip them to their structural essence.  He had no interest in smoothing the brushstrokes or making a more convincing illusion of reality.

View of Notre Dame, 1914, by Henri Matisse

Matisse was born in 1869, when photography was already ubiquitous, and came of age in an era when the most interesting movements in art explored liberation from visual realism.  His early work was a kind of post-impressionism, traditional subjects loosely painted with a sensuous approach to vivid colors.

During the time period this show focuses on, Matisse was determined to take his work to a new level.  Perhaps he was challenged by the impact made by the cubism of Picasso and Braque.  Perhaps his previous work began to feel too small and genteel in a time of war. Many of his sculptures and large canvases of this time were repeatedly and heavily reworked, becoming in the process more austere, more bold, and more abstract.

Even as the size of the works expanded towards the monumental, as Matisse’s early rounded, cloudy forms gave way to angular slabs, and his sweet candy colors to fields of blue, black and gray, the images remain sensual and inviting – Matisse could not obscure his inner warmth.

Goldfish and Palette, 1914, by Henri Matisse

Matisse knew that the process of working towards greater abstraction was as interesting as the final works.  Photographers documented incremental stages of paintings that were revised over a period of years, and his sculpture, “Back”, was repeatedly altered by reworking plaster casts, retaining the molds of different versions.  Even where earlier states of the paintings are not documented, Matisse left pentimenti clear enough to invite the viewer to try to penetrate the development of the work by examining the layers of paint.

“The Back”, four versions, 1908 through 1931, by Henri Matisse

The curators of this exhibit have used digital tools to analyze these stages of development, and one gallery presents this analysis in an animated display.  If you are not able to make it to the Museum of Modern Art to see the exhibit, this exposition of the successive changes in “Bathers by a River” and “Back” is presented in the excellent website on “Matisse: Radical Invention” hosted by the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibit was initially shown.  For anyone interested in the creative process of visual art, this website is worth perusing.

Another great example of Matisse’s work from this period is “The Piano Lesson”, recently compared with other artists’ treatment of the same theme in this post at my friend Claudia’s blog, Museworthy.  The original painting is in this show.  It’s eight feet tall and all that gray is surprisingly luminous.

I also recommend matisse.net, one of the best websites out there devoted to any artist’s full career.

Images in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the images links back to the sites where I found them.


Burchfield’s Force Fields

Autumnal Fantasy, 1916-1944, by Charles E. Burchfield

Charles E. Burchfield’s landscape paintings swarm with spirits.  His wild and hairy visions of the alive world are currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in an exhibit titled Heat Waves in a Swamp.  I knew a little of Burchfield before, mostly through reproductions, but seeing this show, brilliantly curated by sculptor Robert Gober, was like discovering a cache of glittering gems hidden in an old tree stump.

Burchfield grew up in Salem, Ohio and lived most of his life in Gardenville, a rural suburb of Buffalo, New York.  His talent was recognized at a fairly early age, but he had no interest in living in a big city or being part of a movement or scene.  He painted to please himself, and sold paintings to support his wife and five kids.  His life story and his words reveal him as an unassuming and unpretentious man, but so thoroughly an artist that he couldn’t stop thinking as an artist for a moment.  One room of the Whitney show is filled with hundreds of abstract biomorphic doodles that he made while talking on the phone or playing card games with his wife.  Besides doodling he also kept journals throughout his life.  A particular pleasure of the exhibit is that nearly every painting is accompanied by Burchfield’s own eloquent description or reminiscence of its creation.

Charles E. Burchfield painting in his studio in Gardenville, N.Y., 1966, photo by William Doran, Burchfield Penney Art Center

While he did oil paintings and some mixed media, the bulk of Burchfield’s work is done in the medium of “dry brush” watercolor and gouache.  Traditional watercolor technique involves using thin washes of color on absorbent wet paper, and often tries for luminous, saturated colors and a loose, spontaneous style.  Burchfield’s technique is quite different, heavily worked by watercolorist standards, and his colors are often subtle and earthy.  His work achieves a feeling of light not by a light touch, but by a fiery intensity of movement.

His work divides neatly into three periods: the first begins in his breakthrough year of 1917, when he was in his mid-20’s.  He devised a system of visual motifs that embodied different moods and energies, called “conventions for abstract thoughts“.  These forms remind me of the “thought forms” described by Theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater in a 1901 book as shapes of thoughts visualized through clairvoyant synesthesia, though I do not know whether Burchfield was influenced by Theosophical ideas.  In painting from nature Burchfield saw manifestations of these abstractions, and his paintings of this period seem to depict organic forms through drawn lines whose movement expresses their underlying forces.  Those forces sometimes seem dark, ominous, prickly, overwhelming, or explosive, but always beautiful.  The chaos that is there is fertile and creative.

The Insect Chorus, 1917, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s description of the image above reads, “It is late Sunday afternoon in August.  A child stands alone in the garden listening to the metallic sounds of insects.  They are all his world, so, to his mind, all things become saturated with their presence – Crickets lurk in the depths of the grass, the shadows of the trees conceal fantastic creatures, and the boy looks with fear at the black interior of the arbor, not knowing what terrible thing might be there.”

In his middle period Burchfield turned to a kind of American regionalism or social realism, often depicting industrial scenes or working-class settings.  The paintings of this period have a great sense of light and space.  The example below has a deep perspective reminiscent of Breughel, with a whole town visible in the far distance.

End of the Day, 1938, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s description:  “At the end of a day of hard labor the workmen plod wearily uphill in the eerie twilight of winter, and it seems to the superficial eye that they have little to come home to in those stark, unpainted houses, but, like the houses, they persist and will not give in; and so they attain a rugged dignity that compels our admiration.”

Sun and Rocks, 1918-1950, by Charles E. Burchfield

Burchfield’s late period begins in 1943, when he was fifty.  He had spent decades developing his craft, but felt that his work was “rather prosaic” compared with his youthful, magical approach.  He went back to early works that were not quite successful, but that had the seeds of great ideas he now had the maturity to accomplish.  He attached extra paper around these early paintings, extending them into bold compositions in monumental scale.  The late period expansions were as much as five or six times larger than the early paintings that form their cores.

While many of the middle-period works in the show are oil paintings on loan from major museums, all the late work is watercolor on paper, which can’t be kept on permanent display due to watercolor’s vulnerability to fading, and most of them are from the collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, where the artist’s personal archives reside.  I assume this means most of this late work was not sold in Burchfield’s lifetime.  Perhaps in his later years he had achieved enough recognition, his children were grown, and he felt the freedom to paint for himself, for the sheer joy he clearly felt in it.

The Four Seasons, 1949-1960, by Charles E. Burchfield

Though Burchfield was a protestant, his late work expresses a pure pagan spirituality, in which clouds and rain, trees and insects, are living beings in a web of sacred life.  In one painting, the space between trees, through which the bright distant landscape is seen, becomes a golden dancing figure.  Another seems to show, as curator Robert Gober says, “the point of view of a man lying in a field of dandelions on a sleepless night”.  The late works are overwhelming in their size, their magical light and space, and their thorny, buzzing detail.  The reproductions here don’t even begin to do them justice.

Heat Waves in a Swamp:  The Paintings of Charles Burchfield is curated by Robert Gober.  It was first exhibited at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, before moving to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where it will remain on view until October 17, 2010.

All illustrations for this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the pictures links to their source pages, which are great places to find more images and information on Burchfield and Heat Waves in a Swamp.

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