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Neel Appeal

Art Review: Alice Neel


Published June 18, 2003 at 4:06 p.m.

It's not often that an art show succeeds well on many levels at once; rarer still that an internationally renowned artist fits so comfortably, quirkily and confidently in a Vermont venue. "Alice Neel: Women Drawn," currently at the Firehouse Gallery in Burlington, does all that.

Neel, who died of cancer in 1984, was a frequent visitor to Vermont; her son, Dr. Hartley Neel, lives with his family in Stowe, which is how "Women Drawn" came about: It was curated by Hartley's wife, Ginny, and their daughter Elizabeth, more or less at the urging of family friends Billy and Lillian Mauer and through the auspices of Burlington City Arts. The shared "determination to bring Alice Neel to the Burlington community" seemed to Ginny at first a straightforward goal -- "to provide an array of Alice Neel's drawings of women, and to hang them appropriately on the walls of the Firehouse Gal-lery." But as the project progressed it turned into something else. It became a way for Neel's own family to see her work fresh, in a different light.

"The minute we began choosing specific works for the show," Ginny explains, "it became clear that our interest was focusing on Alice's skill as a draughtsman rather than on the personality of the characters she presented. The subjects of the show are women, but the curatorial focus has been to investigate drawing as the primary process in both the works on paper and the paintings."

Elizabeth Neel, also an artist, grew up virtually at her grandmother's easel, and while she works in varied styles and media, she draws whenever she can and has absorbed the message of Alice Neel's work.

"Alice's bold, drawing-based approach," Elizabeth says, is a rarity among painters of any age, and it reflected Neel's lifelong "commitment to the individual and the moment" and "the visual alternation between tension and harmony...Unlike many painters, Alice did not destroy her drawing as part of her painting process."

This combination of line and brush has been described as at once tender and unforgiving, shocking and endearing, tragic, hilarious, and "happy to look wrong." In any case, the effect is intensely real and alive.

Known primarily for her portraits -- of mothers and children, sons and lovers, friends and neighbors, the famous, the rich, the obscure and downtrodden -- Neel doggedly pursued a personal, human, representational style in an age of abstraction and dogmatic "isms." She called herself "a collector of souls" and, indeed, you can sense the very souls of her subjects in her works -- vivid, immediate and, somehow, staring directly at you.

"I have always considered the human being the first premise," Neel declared, according to a 1997 exhibition catalog at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "I feel his condition is a barometer of the era."

Born at the dawn of the 20th century -- almost exactly, in January 1900 -- Neel spent most of it in public, if not creative, obscurity. She found fame only toward the end of her life, when "second-wave" feminism forced the art world to finally take some women seriously. An appearance on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" and great success on the lecture circuit made Neel a sudden celebrity. But even now, with her reputation established as one of America's most important artists, she defies labels and classification. She's loved by many who come to her work for the first time, and detested by others. She was no feminist in the ordinary sense.

"I don't give a damn -- I was women's lib before there was women's lib," Neel once said, according to Denise Bauer's 2002 article on the artist in Feminist Studies. (Bauer is giving a lecture on Neel at the Firehouse on July 9.) One of Neel's more famous pictures, a watercolor from 1935 that's not part of the Firehouse exhibit, presents herself and a lover in a post-coital bathroom scene. Neels sits squarely on the toilet while the boyfriend, still red and erect, removes a condom from his penis. It was "a private Kama Sutra moment," said a critic for The Village Voice. But it's not as disconcerting as Neel's earlier portrait of Joe Gould, editor of Communist The New Masses, who "sits naked and spread-eagled, like a satyr on a stool," and has three penises.

"These aren't idealized dicks or the teeny genitals of the gods," either, says the Voice; "these are vivacious pricks, painted by someone who looked at cocks and was pleased and amused by them."

That's hard to reconcile with Neel's physical appearance as a sweet, cuddly grandmother, so demure that many doubted she was a painter at all, let alone a radical leftist and one-time member of the Communist Party. In the 1950s, at the height of the McCarthy era, two FBI men turned up at her door in New York's Spanish Harlem, Ginny recounts. "We know you're not a Communist," these gentlemen said, "but you have friends that are." They wanted names.

In a perfect retort, Neel answered immediately, "You know, the only people I don't have represented in my portfolio are FBI men. Won't you sit for me?" Her interrogators left on the spot.

When she painted her sole formal self-portrait at the age of 80, it depicted her wearing nothing but her glasses. A critic for The New York Times observed that her "work has been a way of diminishing her personal sense of separation from life," a point with which Neel apparently agreed.

"It is my way of overcoming the alienation," she told the Times. "It's my ticket to reality."

For Alice Neel, reality brought some devastating blows. Having left her parents and childhood home in rural Pennsylvania, she entered the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art), and in 1925 met and fell in love with Cuban painter Carlos Enrì-quez. A daughter was born, Santillana, who died of diphtheria in 1927.

The Firehouse catalog notes her response: "I should have some birth-control thing... because I was then simply an ambitious artist...In the beginning, I didn't want children, I just got them. But then when [Santillana] died it was frightful...All I could do was get pregnant again, which I did."

Another daughter, Isabetta, was born in 1928. Two years later, Enrìquez returned to Cuba, taking the child with him; Neel saw her daughter again only twice in her life. In 1930, Neel broke down, attempted suicide, and was institutionalized. She left the hospital only to take up with a cocaine addict, Kenneth Doo-little, who in a moment of rage slashed most of her paintings, along with her clothes, and "burned 300 drawings and watercolors."

For Neel, "It was a holocaust," and after recovering she resolved to go it alone. Not without friends or lovers -- there were plenty of each -- but as a single woman and a working artist. She bore two sons by different fathers and raised them herself in an apartment filled with easels, paintings and pets. For 20 years Neel was virtually penniless, selling no work at all, but even so, whenever she passed a beggar on the street, she fished in her purse and tossed him a quarter.

"She was the best mother anyone ever had," Hartley Neel says now -- although she wanted Hartley to become a ballet dancer instead of a doctor, and her other son, Richard, to be a pianist, not the lawyer and investor he became. In the end, however, as Ginny recalls, "she got into whatever you were into" and regarded everyone she met -- provided they were "fully realized" in their life, love and work -- as "philosophers" of the spirit.

In 1984, a reporter from Interview magazine ventured that Neel wasn't a painter but "a translator," and she concurred: "That's what I really am, yes. A sympathetic, or sometimes not so sympathetic, translator."

A small house on Hartley's property in Stowe became her sometime studio -- the only one she ever had -- and when she died she was buried near it.

"In some way," says Ginny, "her spirit really does reside with us." Viewers of Alice Neel's work at the Firehouse will surely feel some of that spirit, too.

Top Drawer

Alice Neel was a figurative painter working in a very challenging environment. In the middle of the 20th century, newness was the order of the day and abstraction was the newest game in town. In her 1973 book Beyond Modern Art, critic Carla Gottlieb seemed to view European abstraction from before 1920 the same way the New Testament portrays John the Baptist: as a prelude to the main event. Gottlieb also makes virtually no references to figurative art, except in the context of Pop.

Neel began her career in the early 1930s, when American artists were still primarily interested in figuration. The Firehouse exhibition "Alice Neel: Women Drawn" begins at the beginning, with a 1930 oil on canvas entitled "Fanya." The piece demonstrates that Neel had discovered early on an aesthetic approach she would steadfastly maintain throughout her career. "Fanya" is a subjective portrait created in the tradition of Modigliani, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Picasso -- as seen in his "Portrait of Gertrude Stein."

Drawing is the foundation of Neel's painting, and its preeminence is maintained by a restrained palette. The ink-on-paper "Woman Embracing Children" from 1940 is a collection of searching, fluid lines gathered into the forms of a woman with four children pressed against her. There is no designation of class or even ethnicity, but Neel's lines communicate struggle rather than a placid, comfortable existence.

She worked in the WPA public works and federal arts programs during the Depression. Unlike Jackson Pollock, who was also part of those programs, Neel did not abandon the figure during World War II. Instead she seemed to move in the opposite direction, further away from the elitist notion that the formal aspects of painting are all that matter.

In her 1943 painting "The Spanish Family," a Hispanic mother with a baby on her lap is flanked by a son and a daughter. The hues are mostly dull earth tones, and the subjects sit in front of a wrought-iron fence that fills the background, creating a shallow space. It echoes Manet's 1873 painting "The Railroad," in which a mother and little girl appear in front of a similar fence. The two different mothers share a bland, resigned expression, and the fences in the background seem to imprison them in their roles. But Manet's figures are obviously from a more comfortable class.

Even though 41 percent of the WPA artists were women, few female artists of the post-war era were given serious consideration as professionals. Nevertheless, Neel never abandoned art or her personal approach to it. She continued to draw and paint subjects in a manner that seemed to reveal their inner lives, and consciously projected her own view of the zeitgeist onto her subjects.

The 1952 painting "Mitzi Rosen" captures some of the anxiety of that era, with Rosen looking like the deranged Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. But Neel's image is entirely original; the painting dates from 10 years before the film. Neurotic-looking eyes such as those of "Mitzi Rosen" frequently appear in Neel's portraits, even those of children.

In the 1960s cultural forces became more favorable for women in the arts, and in the 1970s figurative painting was beginning to be seen as important again. Most of the pieces in the Firehouse exhibit date from the last 15 years of Neel's life. Happily, the acclaim she received had no adverse effect on the veracity of her work. The ultramarine contour lines of the 1981 painting "Marilyn Symmes" have the same searching quality apparent in the 1940 drawing "Woman Embracing Children."

By the time her work was suddenly "discovered" by critics and the public, Neel had already been productive for more than 30 years. But to the critical mainstream that had ignored the figurative paintings of an entire generation, Neel could be seen as fresh and new. The process of discovering her work continues. For those who have yet to learn why she is important, the Firehouse exhibition is an excellent place to start.