Alice Neel: Painted Truths

March 21 - June 13, 2010



Wall panel text from the exhibition


Alice Neel: Painted Truths
Because portraiture was her primary genre Alice Neel (1900-1984) faced steep odds in her quest to have her work exhibited and appreciated. By the early 20th century, advances in photography had rendered painted portraiture practically obsolete, the discredited province of conservative academic painters who almost invariably worked on commission, and therefore were in the business of flattering their sitters. The genre was in such disrepute that Neel refused to use the term "portraits" to describe her paintings, identifying them instead as "pictures of people."
Neel almost never worked on commission, so was under no obligation to produce likenesses that ennobled her sitters or ignored their abnormalities. Unlike almost all other socially and politically engaged painters of her generation, she concentrated on the specific. Her contemporaries painted types -- the shop girl, the immigrant, the political martyr -- so their works now seems dated and lifeless. But Neel focused on the distinctive individuality of each of her sitters, creating portraits that vibrate with energy and seem timeless today.
When Abstract Expressionism dominated America's artistic discourse in the 1940s and 1950s, Neel's work fell even further out of favor. Living as a single mother in Spanish Harlem from 1938 to 1962, she mounted only six widely spaced solo shows during those 24 years. Recognition came late in life, after she moved to the West Side and began to paint influential people in the art world.
Despite years of critical neglect and late-found fame, Alice Neel ignored prevailing artistic fashions. She painted the truth as she saw it, leaving a rich visual history of her era.
Allegory has long been a favored tool of artists, writers, and filmmakers to communicate social and political opinions. Alice Neel admired such masterpieces of allegory as the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola; the films of Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang; the plays of Berthold Brecht; and the paintings and murals of the Mexican artists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco that were renowned throughout the New York art community in the 1920s and 1930s.
Neel employed allegory early in her career not only to declare her compassion for New York City's poor and her identification with leaders of the labor movement, but also to explore her grief over the death of one daughter and the loss of another to the custody of her husband's family. In Symbols (Doll and Apple), she meditated on women's status in a male-dominated world through religious and secular allegorical iconography.
The Essential Portrait
Alice Neel progressed through three distinct periods in her portraiture, but the progress was far from linear. The periods often overlap, so the distinction is stylistic rather than strictly chronological. Whereas her early paintings of the late 1920s and early 1930s often contain overt symbolism, and her works from the late 1950s until her death employ unpainted areas of canvas and figural relationships to comment on the psychology of the sitters, the works in Neel's middle period -- here defined as "the essential portraits" -- are characterized by fully worked backgrounds and an intense concentration on the sitter.
Neel came closest to traditionally realistic portraiture in the works of this middle period, having abandoned the sometimes surrealistic elements of her earlier paintings, but not yet allowing herself the expressionistic freedom of her late, psychologically probing images.
The Psychological Portrait
Alice Neel's most interesting sitter was almost certainly Andy Warhol because, although both artists specialized in portraiture, they approached the genre from completely opposite philosophical stances. Warhol, who worked from photographs, often of people whom he had never met, was interested only in the personas that his subjects had constructed; he never tried to penetrate the facade. Neel, however, saw herself as a psychiatrist, recording her subjects' ever-changing emotions in oil paint.
Unlike photographs, Neel's late portraits do not capture a moment in time. They record her impressions and perceptions of each subject as the sittings evolved, so they exist in a continuous artistic present. By identifying and exaggerating her sitter's idiosyncrasies, Neel arrived at psychological essences that transcend mere physical likenesses.
More than any other aspect of her work, Neel's cityscapes fit neatly into three distinct categories: the Greenwich Village Years (1932­38), the Spanish Harlem period (1938-62), and her final years on the Upper West Side (1962­84). The Greenwich Village pictures, many painted for the New Deal PWAP (Public Works of Art Project), deal with life on the street, reflecting the artist's engagement with the community. She would sketch the scene on the street, writing the names of the colors in the contours, and then create the painting in her studio.
As a single mother raising two boys, Neel produced cityscapes in her Spanish Harlem period that exude a sense of isolation and entrapment, conveying an intimate view of tenement life as seen from within. In the Upper West Side paintings, the space becomes deeper, less claustrophobic, and the palette lightens in the abundant sunlight from her north-facing windows and the reflected light from the white-painted building opposite them.
Although she drew on a few precedents like the nudes of Paul Cézanne and Paula Modersohn-Becker, Alice Neel essentially invented the nude portrait. The nude had been almost exclusively the province of male artists who generally worked from professional models. Men tend to idealize the nude, both male and female, depicting a fantasized type rather that a particular human being. Neel's nudes are specific people who happen not to be wearing clothes. Rather than idealizing, she often exaggerated the imperfections that she observed. The opposite of pinups, her nudes' bodies are overflowing and uncontained, sagging, wrinkled, and hairy.
Neel had to remove Joe Gould from the 1934 Washington Square Outdoor Exhibition in response to complaints of obscenity. As late as 1975, this satirical male nude was hung in a janitor's closet during a retrospective of Neel's work. No other artist has depicted the pregnant nude with the unsentimental, dispassionate accuracy of Alice Neel.
Parents and Children
Neel's intense engagement with the subject of parents and children went through two periods: first when she was tending to her four children, two of whom she reared to maturity, and then when her sons began to have children of their own. Between these periods, she occasionally painted mothers and children who were her neighbors in Spanish Harlem. The first period was clouded by the loss of her two daughters -- Santillana to diphtheria, and Isabetta to her husband's family in Havana. In Hartley on the Rocking Horse, Neel depicted the delicate balance of being a single mother and a practicing artist.
In the second phase, Neel became the dispassionate observer rather than the uneasy participant. Unlike such childless artists as Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, she never sentimentalized the often messy facts of motherhood. The children she painted were imperfect and the parents unsure how to cope.
The Detached Gaze
In her portraits of her male children, Neel generally treated them with sympathy, repressing her penchant for the grotesque and representing a strong feeling of empathy. Her depictions of Richard in 1945 and Hartley in 1966 -- shown in other sections of this exhibition -- render their insecurities and anxieties as though Neel were feeling them herself. The sense of bonding present in Neel's portraits of her sons is not evident in other family portraits.
In Isabetta (1934/35), Neel's detachment from her estranged daughter is obvious. Rather than sentimentalizing this rare visit, she presents its discomfort. Forty years later, she repeated the pose with her first granddaughter in Olivia in Red Hat. It is a confrontational painting, but not to the same degree as Isabetta because of its lack of nudity. Neel shows little empathy for another granddaughter in Victoria and the Cat, gleefully zooming in on Victoria's vulnerability and youthful gawkiness.
Old Age
Alice Neel did not begin painting older sitters until she herself was middle-aged. The occasion was the death of her father in 1946, when she painted a memory portrait of him in his casket. Perhaps she regretted never having painted her father in life, for paintings of older subjects became a regular feature of her practice in the latter half of her career, as her friends and family -- and indeed, the artist -- began to feel the effects of time.
Although Max White was only 55 when Neel painted her third portrait of him in 1961, crippling arthritis made him appear much older. His likeness in "The Essential Portrait" section shows a man exuding vigor, but here he slumps into his chair, an invalid. The elfin 74-year-old twins in The Soyer Brothers barely make an indentation on Neel's daybed. While Moses engages the artist, Raphael reflects in private.
Portraits from Memory
Alice Neel preferred to paint directly from the sitter, never using photographs, except in some portraits commissioned late in her life, when the subject was unavailable or unwilling to pose. Throughout her career, however, she created portraits from memory either of chance encounters or of incidents that she could not re-create in her studio.
Neel, who prided herself on her visual memory, was influenced by the writings of Robert Henri, the leading theorist of the Eight, also known as the Ashcan School. In his book The Art Spirit, which Neel owned and recommended to other artists, Henri wrote that, in the ideal academy, students would study the model in one room, but paint or draw the subject in a different one. He believed that the artists had to capture the essence of the subject and lock it into their memories, because nothing remains constant.

For biographical information on certain artists referenced above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

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