Friday, August 12, 2011

Alice Neel...The Artist of Unredeemed Realism...the Quintessential Whistling Girl

                                   Alice Neel, Self-Portrait,1980

Alice Neel's self-portrait at eighty...she once said,"I'm cursed to be in this Mother Hubbard body.I'm a real sexy person."Although Alice would have disdained such a definition...she became the "de facto artist of the feminist movement"...Time magazine in 1970,asked her to paint the author of the seminal feminist work,Sexual Politics, Kate Millet's portrait for their cover.And although Alice suffered greatly in her personal life,both as a woman and as an artist, she never became a "victim".Instead of fetishizing her personal pain like Frida Kahlo,she "transformed her deepest wounds into her most humanistic work".Alice said about herself,"Regardless of whether I am painting or not,I have an immense fascination for humanity".At the height of Abstract Expressionism in New York...Alice was doing her iconoclastic and rebellious figurative work...the "art of not sitting pretty".She doggedly pursued her own distinctive approach to revealing both the psychology and the sociology of the persons she painted. Even after the mid-1970s,when she finally gained recognition as an artist - helped by a major retrospective in 1974 at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art -she rarely took commissions...she always "painted for herself".
This is what Alice said about her individualism and her art..."I do not know if the truth that I have told will benefit the world in any way. I managed to do it at great cost to myself and perhaps to others. It is hard to go against the tide of one's time, milieu,and position. But at least I tried to reflect innocently the twentieth century and my feelings and perceptions as a girl and a woman. Not that I felt they were all that different from men's."
A fascinating study of Neel and her radical realism in portraiture is Alice Neel:The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban...she has these stunning insights about Alice's brave reflection of her stunning crystalization of her raison d'etre...her art and her painting in her self-portrait at eighty:

             One of the last paintings Neel made was a rare self-portrait.At eighty, Neel cast a relentless eye on herself perched on a chair, the artist known for her scathing nude portraits is stripped down to her quintessence.Naked but for her glasses, a paint brush and a rag, she bravely renders herself with neither clothing nor props, her aging body equipped just with the tools of her craft - her vision and her deftly wielded implements - as if to make the definitive statement of self-expression:"I paint, therefore I am". The flesh may sag, may, as Neel put it,be "dropping off the bone", but the artist and her ability to paint remain forcefully intact. It is a radical departure from the standard artist's self-portrait, and in its stark veracity beautifully illustrates Neel's original and enduring American vision.

As Alice said about herself,"The road that I pursued, and the road that I think keeps you an artist, is that no matter what happens to you, you still keep on painting...."

Alice Neel's Portrait of Kate Millet,author of the seminal feminist work,Sexual Politics, for the cover of Time magazine in 1970.Neel was grateful to the women's movement..."she thought they were right, she didn't like the way the world treated women.But she didn't like the way it treated some men,either".Her subject was people...the Human Tragedy,and,sometimes,Comedy...she was,above all, a humanist,and some of her finest portraits...are also of men.

    Alice's portrait of Andy Warhol,1970,oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art,New York.Very unusual for a portrait,Warhol's eyes are closed.Alice painted this revealing masterpiece two years after he was shot and nearly killed by Valerie Solanis.Warhol was notoriously shy about his body,and he is only naked from the waist up,wearing a truss,the scars on his chest almost forming a heart shape.We don't know if it was Neel who suggested he close his eyes,or if it was his own idea.But the portrait seems to ask the question,"Is it Warhol who can't face his own mortality?"In the year of her own death,1984,Neel was photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe...he later revealed that Neel asked to keep her eyes closed,"So I can see what I will look like when I'm dead".

Andy Warhol sitting for his portrait with his eyes closed

Alice with her portrait of Andy Warhol

  Alice before her self-portrait at 80

Alice's portrait of Robert Smithson,American "land artist"

Alice's portrait of American poet,Frank O'Hara,1960,oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Washington,D.C.He later
became curator at the Museum of Modern Art

Alice's portrait of Joseph Papp,1964, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Washington,D.C.

During the '30s when "it wasn't proper for a woman to be thinking about nudity,let alone displaying it in the artist's ruddy,forceful fashion"....uninhibited by convention,Alice painted daring, provocative female nudes...a subject that had been almost exclusively the domain of male artists ...and she kept figurative painting,and her concept of figuration, alive through decades when it was considered passe,even crude...

     Portrait of Rhoda Myers With Blue Hat

Alice Neel's portrait of Rhoda Myers Nude

                     Ethel Ashton, 1930, oil on canvas

                Nadya and Nona,1933

Winifred Mesmer

                         Ruth Nude

              Pregnant Julie and Algis,1967,oil on canvas

Annie Sprinkle

                        Pregnant Woman

         Margaret Evans Pregnant,1978

Mary D. Garrard, 1977

Elenka,1936,The Metropolitan Museum of Art,New York

Alice's 1972 portrait of art critic...John Perreault...who was the art critic for The Village Voce and then the SoHo News...this nude portrait of him is in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art,New York...
see his Artopia...John Perreault's art diary

John Perreault is also an artist,as well as an art critic....this is a mural he painted in 2005 called Toothpaste Mural,toothpaste on canvas....really.

See The High Plains Alchemy of John Perreault

Also see interesting article in New York Times about the marriage of John Perreault and Jeff Weinstein in Provincetown,Massachusetts in 2008...

Alice's famously exaggerated 1933 portrait of the American eccentric,Joe Gould,also known as Professor Seagull...Gould pretended to be the author of the longest book ever written,an Oral History of the Contemporary World(or Oral History of Our Time) reality,the book never existed.Gould was a fraud... as his multiple genitalia suggests.As one reviewer said about his portrait,"it reveals how much she intuited his self-deception and accepted it - the picture is comic and benign".Neel was after truth...but on occasion,she was after irony and satire,too.

                             Young Woman


                        Ballet Dancer

Portrait of Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian,1978

Ron Kajiwara

                                                   Sam and Hartley

Two Black Girls( Antonia and Carmen Encamacion),1959,oil on canvas

                                                       Jerry Sokol

Portrait of tranvestites,Rita Red and Jackie Curtis,two Superstars of Andy Warhol's factory,1970

Mrs. Paul Gardner and Son

                        Rita and Hubert

The Druid

       Victoria and the Cat,1980

Portrait of  artist Dana Gordon,1972

Alice's 1966 portrait of her youngest son,Hartley,National Gallery of Art, Washington,D.C.....she painted this portrait when Hartley Neel was 25 and visiting her New York apartment during a holiday break from Tufts University... he was conflicted about studying medicine because he couldn't bear dissecting corpses...his gaze in this portrait indicates his thoughts are very far away...Alice said about this painting,"There is death in this painting" can see it in her use of grayish green to capture shadowy areas on his skin,but there is also a sensuousness which is frequently missing from her nudes,which are always frank and often disturbing,even grotesque.Although Neel was gifted at capturing likenesses,she avoided photographic verisimilitude,deliberately distorting features and using unnatural colors to capture her subjects' inner lives....

Alice's 1978 portrait of Virginia Miller...influential South Florida gallery owner and art exhibit curator...

Leading Feminist Art Historian...Linda Nochlin and Daisy...Nochlin
is best known for her influential essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Nochlin says,"its main thesis was an attack on the idea that genius is innate,something you are born with.And that this genius is specifically male".

Alice's 1973 portrait of the Soyer brothers,identical twins Moses and Raphael...the golden boys of '30s art and social realism in America...

Alice described herself as a "Captor of Souls"....

           Alice Neel, Fire Escape,1948

                      Ninth Avenue El, 1936

In the 1930s Neel lived in Greenwich Village and moved in mostly literary and left wing circles.In 1933 she enrolled in the Public Works Art Program,a project funded by the federal government intended to give out-of-work artists financial support in return for works of art.When it was discontinued,she signed up with the Works Progress Administration which required her to paint urban scenes.

"I love to paint people torn to shreds by the rat race in New York."...Alice Neel ...excerpt from

"I don't look for anything...I just look"....Alice Neel...painting a young woman's portrait in her studio

"Whether I'm painting or not, I have an overweening interest in humanity. Even if I'm not working, I'm still analyzing people"

A virtual tour of the Alice Neel Painted Truths exhibit at the Whitechapel Art Gallery,London,8 July-17 September,2010

For a gallery of Alice's work see
Alice Neel
For further reading:
1.Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting                  Pretty,Phoebe Hoban.

2.Pictures of People: Alice Neel's American Portrait Gallery,Pamela Allara,1998,Brandeis University Press,named one of 1998's Best art Books by the Boston Globe,this is  generously illustrated and vibrant chronicle of the life and work of Alice Neel,and shows how portraits from a career spanning the 1920s to the 1970s constitute a virtual gallery of American cultural history.Neel informed by left-wing politics and avant-garde modernism...infused portraiture with a new energy and relevance.