Sam Brody, Portrait of Alice Neel
© Estate of Sam Brody
Alice Neel Now
by Jeremy Lewison
In today’s contemporary art world, young curators who have been schooled in the various curatorial courses throughout the world privilege the broadly conceptual. These courses tend to place emphasis on critical theory and cultural studies, which inevitably favour the discussion of works of art that prefer text to image, discourse to poetry, and fact to imagination. Many of their graduates have scant knowledge of art prior to 1980 and little interest in art of previous centuries and as a result are ill equipped to look at, let alone judge, painting. And since many art students are schooled in the same way it is no surprise that there is a dearth of thoughtful painters among young art school graduates who themselves gravitate towards film, photography, installation or conceptual art.
In her lifetime Alice Neel faced similar difficulties. Her art, which was more or less realist, came to maturity in the ascendant period of Abstract Expressionism and although there was a realist alternative she was more or less excluded from it. The major critics of the day paid her little attention, preferring Philip Pearlstein, Larry Rivers, Richard Diebenkorn and others. To them her works must have seemed like a throwback to the nineteenth century rather than an expression of the contemporary every bit as vivid as the avant-garde. She was not included in the major exhibitions of realist art that took place in the 1960s in, among other places, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in spite of her efforts at ingratiating herself with two of the major curators of the time, Frank O’Hara and Henry Geldzahler, by painting their portraits. And when Abstract Expressionism was superseded by Pop, Minimal and Conceptual art she remained out of synch. The feminist movement flexed its muscles and embraced Neel as a forerunner, but Feminist artists tended to work in other idioms: performance, photography, video and conceptually based practices since painting seemed irrevocably associated with the macho posturing of the Abstract Expressionists and then the Minimalists.
Notwithstanding a revival of interest in painting in the late 1990s, it is still pretty much a marginal activity in terms of museum and critical patronage. High prices paid at auction for such artists as Gerhard Richter and Peter Doig should not be taken as a sign that painting is in favour with those who promote art through magazines, exhibitions and museum collecting. But in the public mind painting endures and young artists setting out to be painters now need more than ever to see how artists of earlier generations successfully resisted the status quo and remained outside what evolved into an academic style, for this is what much of the conceptual, film and photographic work has become; merely another academy.
Alice Neel, Ginny and Elizabeth © Estate of Alice Neel
Alice Neel, Carmen and Judy 1972 Collection: Oklahoma City Museum of Art. © Estate of Alice Neel
Alice Neel, Don Perlis and Jonathan 1984 Collection: Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © Estate of Alice Neel
For such painters as Doig, Marlene Dumas, John Currin and even such sculptors as Robert Gober, to name but a few, Alice Neel provided a precedent, an outlook on the world and on art that provided some kind of model. Highly personal, engaged with humanity, uninvolved with intellectual debate but nonetheless cognisant of the latest movements, it was a highly personal take on life mediated through paint. Neel keenly observed the strengths, weakness and foibles of individuals she encountered, and had an eye for the extraordinary in the ordinary, the whimsical and the eccentric, the cruel and the kind. There was no showing off; just honesty, commitment and psychological acuity. There was also a facility with paint itself, of drawing and colouring with it, of using it as matter itself as well as descriptively, all of which strikes such a strong chord with painters today. The faces she depicted reveal painterly passages that could be details from a Cézanne landscape with patches of non naturalistic colour laid side by side, merging to form the most extraordinary areas of light and shade and sculptural modelling. She painted thick and thin, dry and wet, and in the later stages of her career ignored any conventions of finish, rather deciding for herself when a work was complete enough. At times she felt that a painting had reached a point where to go further would spoil it and in some instances painted a second version. Ultimately what mattered to Neel was to keep the painting fresh and alive.
Neel demonstrates to painters today that subject painting retains its power to move and to engage the viewer; that a great work of art need not be capable of literary description or be underpinned by conceptual argument, nor need it rely on mechanical aids to achieve a degree of realism. Her subjects, particularly in the last twenty years of her life, appear to be continuously alive, trapped in the present as though engaging directly with the viewer. Few painters have had her ability to create a painting that seems constantly to be in formation, to exist in the present for each and every viewer. Each sitter is not only a witness to his or her time but also a living memory of the past. Most portraits, like most photographs, are emblematic of death – they document an irrecoverable past. Only the great portraitists, like Rembrandt, are able to keep their subjects alive. His moving late self-portrait in Kenwood testifies to his ability to remain forever engaged with the viewer who, in the portrait’s presence, feels he is in dialogue with the painter. In such instances the past is no barrier, for time is continuous.
In our present era portraiture has been relegated to a minor art. The portrait survives largely in the wooden paintings commissioned by academic colleges or national portrait galleries from second rate artists who have facility but little flair or psychological understanding or vision. Photography has replaced painting as the means of choice for portraiture but photography is concerned with capturing the moment whereas painting is about the synthesis of time. Moreover photography, with its smooth reflective surface, its images, printed by a chemical reaction or digitally manipulated having no material depth, is entirely different from a painted portrait. Neel’s work is an assimilation of many different moments and moods, a distillation of many hours of scrutiny of the subject that concludes in a single summarising image where the impressions captured over time are related not simply through an image but through the material quality of paint, the flicks of the wrist and the movements of an arm, paint laid on hastily and contours outlined slowly. Neel’s art displays a range of marks made in the service of communicating an image rather than at the behest of any conceptual programme, for Neel is a natural painter and it is her unselfconscious, apparently simple approach to painting that we should revere.
To look at Neel’s work now is to see a review of the twentieth century in New York. She represents changes in fashion and social mores, racial and gender issues, class differential, political agendas, feminist advances; in short her work effortlessly reflects a century of change as much as that of any photographer from the same era. The abandonment of the modernist project has allowed room for multiple voices to be heard and one that needs to be heard now is Alice Neel’s.
Jeremy Lewison is an independent curator and advises the Estate of Alice Neel and the Kadist Foundation. He was formerly Director of Collections at Tate.
This Special Issue on Alice Neel was published in March 2010