That's Ms. Neel
by Michael Klein
In the mid 70s when I was studying art history at NYU and in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program, I had long hair, a moustache, and was deeply earnest. I worked various jobs to earn money: as a bookstore clerk at Barnes and Noble—long before it became a chain--and a short order cook at an Upper Eastside bar. I also worked weekends giving tours for the Whitney’s Education Dept. (I had challenged myself to get over a case of adolescent shyness that clung to me and speaking to the public twice on Saturdays and twice on Sundays was a sure fire cure!)
The two shows I was responsible for at the Whitney were a show organized by the English critic Lawrence Alloway on American Pop Art, and an Alice Neel retrospective of some 80 paintings. Our study group had organized another smaller show that was on then too: Frank O’Hara: A Poet Among Painters.
Looking back now, I can see that it would have made perfect sense for me to call Ms. Neel at the time to ask her questions about the works in the show. I could have asked her about her life; her thoughts about this, her first major museum show; gotten a few direct quotes from her or an anecdote or two, but I was naïve and pretty inexperienced in the workings of the art world and the ease with which artists are happy to talk about their work if asked. All I knew was that I could speak about her works and describe their styles, interpret what I had read, and lead the visitors through the show pointing out aspects of her paintings. Little did I know that behind each face was a story, that each of these portrayals of friends and colleagues was a unique statement in the style of painting and also unique to a woman who had no affiliation with any particular school, just to the life and artistic energy of New York. She was part of that “other New York School of Painting” that included artists working outside the mainstream of social realism or abstract art and mid-century Abstract Expressionism. She, and a vast array of painters from Beauford Delaney, John Koch and Jacob Lawrence to Alex Katz and even Grace Hartigan, saw life in the world around them: the myriad of people and non-stop street life of New York City. Neel and her compatriots wanted to bring that subject matter into the studio, reflect on its character and then turn it into the expressive images of their respective canvases.
While life on the street was one of Neel’s themes, she also painted many an interior scene using her studio or home as the subject matter, but Neel’s portraits, in particular her portrayals of children, are among her strongest works. She focused on kids: the children of friends, the children of neighbors, children who were open to posing and allowing the painter to expose their tender emotions and fragile feelings. These are not the kids whose families pay to have portraits made for future generations to know their names, or their stations in life. They are the stoop sitters and hopscotch players that populate the side streets of Manhattan on a warm summer day. They are the kids of working class parents or poor families. Various biographical accounts suggest that Neel was a thinker, her political ideals formed by poverty and the general economic depression of the 30s and pre-war days in New York, and no doubt these kids were in many cases the innocent victims of the world in which they were born, a world mired in a global economic down turn and growing nationalism and racism.
Among the paintings of the Depression era, along with her portraits, are sooty cityscapes of upper Westside building facades and fire-escapes; snowy dark alleyways; brooding still lives of fruit, table tops and cheap cut crystal. And, one dark, somewhat crude painting of a workers' parade and rally. In the foreground of this painting one sees a placard that reads “Hitler Murders Jews,” a message in 1936 that the world was not willing to hear. Neel’s work expresses compassion and curiosity about the similar to the contemporary photographs of the late Helen Levitt; we can watch these kids but we are never really invited to participate in their games or conversations. Levitt’s’“ street photography” has the same immediacy and intimacy observed in Neel’s paintings. Like Levitt, Neel's inspirations come from the world as she finds it: gritty, hard and unembellished.
Decades later this independent, progressive lady was still ahead of her time in many things and many ways, from her political stance to her social views. While most Americans in the 60s and 70s were struggling with the passage of the Voting Rights Act or witnessing the Stonewall riots or debating the case of Roe v. Wade, Neel continued to paint everyone without regard to race, age, gender or sexual orientation. She painted the rich and the poor, Black, White and Hispanic, art stars like Andy Warhol and Duane Hanson, art couples like the art critics David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock, and many, many women, including those on the national political scene such as Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan, or from New York artistic circles such as the Pop artist Marisol and the art historian Linda Nochlin. Nochlin’s radical and now historic 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” stands as a dictum about Neel. It wasn’t that there were no great women artists; it was that their access to the system was stymied. (In the immediate post-war era the artists were men, the critics were men, the dealers were men and the museums where it was all put together were run by men from good families.) Neel’s 1974 retrospective, followed shortly the same year by a Joan Mitchell show at the Whitney, were rare occurrences -- solo shows by women artists organized by a major institution.
Alice Neel, Max White, 1961 Photo: Malcolm Varon
© Estate of Alice Neel
Alice Neel, Frank O´Hara, No. 2, 1960 Photo: Malcolm Varon
© Estate of Alice Neel
Alice Neel, Sam, 1958 Photo: Malcolm Varon
© Estate of Alice Neel
Alice Neel, Fire Escape, 1948 Oil on canvas.
© Estate of Alice Neel
Photo: Malcolm Varon
Neel’s women subjects are presented as they are at home: seated, naked, pregnant, alone or with their children; sitting with their domestic partners or husbands. These earthy and very moving portraits would provide a sociologist with a good cross section of the social disposition of five decades of American urban women. Neel’s rich pictorial character assessments run from images of the very young to her professional associates and friends in middle age, to the elderly as we see in Neel’s own 1980 self-portrait. She portrays herself honestly, unabashedly in the nude; and the painting reveals much about the artist. It declares her independent spirit, her growing age, and her abundant weight, but also stands out as the representation of a woman unafraid to allow the world to see her or and know her literally from head to toe.
There is something universal about a portrait, about painting a figure that comes from some walk of life and is dressed in a certain way, sitting in a chair or reclining on a sofa or reading at a table and conversing with the painter and expressing him or herself through that process. We might care less about the specifics of the sitter than the mood, or emotion or passion we read in the eyes, the turn of the head, or the way the figure is placed in the room or, more importantly for Neel, placed on the canvas. Neel saw through convention and made no bones about wanting to get to the sitter’s soul. She could do this in oil, or watercolor, or by sketching with pastel or drawing with graphite on paper. Neel was not bound by any single convention of art making and used the materials she needed to tell the story, exaggerating color or form to underscore the extremes, habits, distortions, and physical attributes that she wants to report about her sitter: smoking, wearing a bright red felt hat, staring with dark brooding eyes, or lying on a sofa showing off the fullness of a belly.
That said, it is the Neel style, her habit really, to dig in and find things in the portrait that are both positive and negative. Neel was able to use her powers of observation like an x-ray that reveals the structure beneath the skin to explore and exploit that very fragile thing that is our ego. Beyond the ego is the soul, and within it sits the pressures and feelings that form the lines and give shape to facial features, bodily stance, and the general architecture of the body. In the end, it was this human architecture that was, for Neel, something to examine, represent, and reveal unapologetically, including the flaws and idiosyncrasies of our physical forms. A case in point is an early watercolor dated to 1935 on view last spring in a show of works of the 1930s at Zwirner & Wirth Gallery in New York. At first glance, Katherine Hogle is a study of a lady wearing a long coat with a fur collar and a floppy hat. At second glance, however, one realizes her coat is her skin and the bodice of the coat is actually her pale body, naked to the wind and revealing a dense pubic area as stylish as her hat or shoes! She is neither embarrassed nor taken aback by her pose--it is who she is underneath the coat. Like a good reporter, Neel focuses on the facts and allows us to interpret the feelings and personas she discovers.
It is not surprising that twenty-five years since Neel’s death the vitality of her vision and the compassion expressed for her audience through her art remain of great interest and that her work has garnered an international audience. In a way, she is the ambassador of the American dream: she rose from humble origins to great success and experienced all the bumps in between. I remember her, appearing one night on the Johnny Carson Show—this must have been in the early 80s. She was certainly an odd guest in Carson’s world of glamorous Hollywood and Broadway. But she was fun to listen to and seemed to be the perfect, idiosyncratic and warmly entertaining lady artist that most Americans I’m sure had neither met nor seen, but was now being interviewed and chatting to them about her life through the TV sets in millions of bedrooms across America.
Her recent shows in London and Berlin demonstrate that her work is of interest to a European audience steeped in the tradition of portrait painting and keenly aware of her contemporaries, such as Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud, and Gerhard Richter. Neel shares with these painters not only a love of paint and painterly abilities but also the psychological intensity of her sitters, the representation of character and type, passion and pain. Writing in Newsweek in 1966, art critic Jack Kroll explained, “Neel is the heir of the European expressionist painters who saw modern man distorted by unnamable demons. But the weather in her world is not depressing; it shows deep affection for the hard work the ego must do to find reasons for comfort and self-love.”
In the four decades since Kroll’s article, Neel has become in many ways a role model for women artists, painters and otherwise. She forged a life that was both professional and private, had a career and raised a family, saw failure and success, and in the end created a body of work that is insistent in its honesty and power.
Her expressive manner of painting is timeless because it reaches out to viewers and directs us to see the humanity that links and unites every man, woman, and child.
Former head of the Microsoft Art Collection, Michael Klein is an art dealer and curator in New York City.
This Special Issue on Alice Neel was published in March 2010