Go Ask Alice
by Stuart Horodner
No one paints a portrait like Alice Neel. Sharing sympathies with poet Allen Ginsberg, whose motto was "first thought, best thought," she seems to understand immediately where to locate her subjects on the canvas. Neel uses direct outlines of blue or black to position them in space, seated on chairs or couches or beds, or standing up at attention. Then she proceeds to slowly fill them in with broad passages of color that establish the structure and surface of their bodies and clothes. During the portrait-making process, Neel’s precise looking becomes the various strokes and dabs of the brush that accumulate until the work is complete. A Neel portrait is more of a possessing than a picturing; they combine a kind of coloring book certainty with a hint of caricature.
No matter their year of completion, her paintings operate in a constant now, as if she just walked away from them to answer the phone. She transforms oil paint into skin, hair, cloth, fur, plaid, wood and air with great economy and intelligence. Her works are dense with telling details and yet maintain an extreme openness. Several years ago, during a conversation with me in her graduate school studio at Columbia University, the painter Dana Schutz said that she loved Neel’s explanation of why she had left the shoulder out of one particular portrait. She said, “it wasn’t necessary.” One of Neel’s great gifts to younger artists is an “it’s OK if I say so” attitude that has implications for both philosophy and plasticity, the why and how of creative activity.
Alice Neel paints family members, neighbors, patrons, businessmen, anarchists, artists, writers, lovers, and children. She is adept at representing youth and age, poverty and wealth, notoriety and anonymity. Her subjects are white and black and brown and yellow. She was painting diversity as the context of her brave life way before political correctness and Benetton ad campaigns.
If you know something about the lives of the figures in a Neel painting, this adds another layer to viewing them. But it is not necessary. We see her people every day. They are our parents and co-workers and friends. They are us. Several of my favorites include:
Frank O'Hara, with his boxer's nose and mouth filled with teeth that Neel said looked like tombstones.
Andy Warhol (after being shot by Valerie Solanis), with his stomach stitched up like Frankenstein’s monster and his eyelids shut. His head and shoulders are surrounded by just enough powder blue to suggest a fragile angel in waiting.
John Perreault as a hairy horizontal odalisque with his dreamy eyes and droopy cock and balls.
Any one of her pregnant nudes with their swollen nipples, blue veins, and weighted bellies. No other artist has consistently examined the complex physical and emotional reality of pregnancy with such clarity and candor.
The Soyer Brothers, Raphael and Moses, sitting near each other wearing suits that hang loosely on their aging bodies. They remind me of my own grandfather, lost in thought with a bent forefinger hiding his closed mouth.
The occasional still life: a Medusa-like philodendron plant near a window, and a Thanksgiving turkey in the kitchen sink.
And Neel’s “just the facts ma’am” nude self portrait at age 80, with her piercing gaze, cascading flesh, and kinetic right foot. It is a tour de force that argues for bravery and acceptance in art and life.
Painter Lucien Freud once remarked, "You can use your intent to make anything seem like anything. Picasso's a master at being able to make a face feel like a foot." Alice Neel uses her intent (and observational acumen, unabashed curiosity, and significant ego) to preserve certain souls she encountered so that we may better understand the parameters of human dignity.
Alice Neel, Nancy and the Twins, 1971. Photo: Malcolm Varon. © Estate of Alice Neel
Stuart Horodner is the Artistic Director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.
This Special Issue on Alice Neel was published in March 2010