Published: March 13, 2001
PHILADELPHIA, PENN. – Organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to celebrate the centennial of the artist in her native city, “Alice Neel” is the first full-fledged retrospective of the work of one of Twentieth Century America’s most provocative and interesting painters. Its 75 paintings and watercolors feature the direct, insightful portraits for which Neel is best known, along with rarely seen still lifes and street scenes that expand appreciation for the breadth of her achievements.
Finally out from under the shadow of abstract art, which dominated the art world for much of her career, Neel’s figurative oeuvre comes across as unfailingly unflinching and candid. It is easy to understand why her no-holds-barred images are greatly admired by some and detested by others. Few will deny that Neel’s work is intriguing and powerful.
In the course of a spicy and adventurous life, Neel (1900-1984) created audacious, uncompromising likenesses of people and places that are as fascinating as her unconventional saga – and are among the most disturbing and potent images in our national portraiture. As the artist once said, “I decided to paint a human comedy – such as Balzac had done in literature.”
An unswerving realist in the era of modern abstraction, a portraitist at a time when such work was out of fashion, Neel painted in virtual obscurity for most of her life. To some extent she rode the rise of the women’s movement to fame in the 1970s and ’80s. She died in 1984.
In recent years there has been widespread interest in her work. Neel’s unconventional life and idiosyncratic subjects have combined to make her almost a cult figure among feminist artists and art historians intrigued by the manner in which she viewed her subject matter – portraits, nudes, streetscapes – in terms of the female experience. The current exhibition ought to enhance her standing among mainstream observers as well.
After opening at the Whitney Museum of American Art last summer, “Alice Neel” was seen at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. this winter. It will be on view in Philadelphia through April 15 and concludes its tour at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, June 10 to September 2.
The exhibition was curated by Ann Temkin, The Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum. Underscoring the significance of showing Neel’s art in her home town, Temkin observes that the painter “brought an innate ability to capture character and a wholly modern sense of urgency to the genre preferred by her Philadelphia forebears, Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Eakins, Cecilia Beaux and Mary Cassatt.”
The feisty artist began life in the most prosaic circumstances. She was born and brought up in towns outside Philadelphia, notably Colwyn, which she later described as puritanical and stifling. Her rather passive father was a railroad clerk of Irish extraction, her strong-willed mother a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Knowing early on that she wanted to be an artist, Neel enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design) in 1921. She spent four years there mastering her craft, drawing from plaster casts and learning about anatomy. Neel found that painting gave her a sense of freedom, a feeling that endured throughout her long and complicated life.
During a summer session run by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, she fell in love with and married a fellow student from a wealthy, aristocratic Cuban family, Carlos Enríquez. While living for a time in Havana, she had a baby girl and turned out canvases of beggars and poor mothers with children that foreshadowed her later interests.
Returning to New York, Neel and Enríquez lived an impoverished existence, punctuated by a series of tragedies for Neel. Soon after her daughter died of diphtheria, in 1927 her husband took their second child, Isabella (Isabetta) to his family in Cuba and began a new life without his wife in Paris. She rarely saw her daughter thereafter.
Neel suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. While recovering with her family, she attempted suicide and was hospitalized again, this time in the suicide ward of Philadelphia General Hospital.
During a year of recovery, a social worker convinced Neel to resume her art as a means of releasing her feelings. Painting became not just a career but, literally, a means of survival. “The minute I sat in front of a canvas,” Neel observed years later, “I was happy. Because it was a world, and I could do as I liked in it.” In that spirit, she persevered, recording the tragedies of her life and her hospital experience in a series of graphic, often disturbing watercolors, filled with raw emotion.
Her daughter-in-law, Nancy Neel, recalled that “Alice loved interesting people, poetic people, intellectual people, out-of-the ordinary people, ones who were down on their luck.” Indeed, the painter called herself “a collector of souls,” and lived the life she depicted.
“Isabetta” (1934-1935) shows her second daughter by Enríquez at about the age of six, in a stark, confrontational pose, when she came from Havana to visit her mother in New York. The little girl’s assertive pose contrasts sharply with Nineteenth Century depictions of childhood innocence. “The galleries would not show it, as they said it was indecent,” Neel recalled, “by the time they showed it, they said it was Lolita.” Mother and daughter met again for the last time in 1939, although Isabetta lived until 1982.
When Neel became romantically involved with John Rothschild, a wealthy travel business operator, Doolittle slashed many of her paintings and drawings and came at her with his curved Turkish knife. Neel and Rothschild remained close friends and occasional lovers through his marriages to three other women, until his death in 1975. A 1958 portrait, “John in a Striped Shirt,” suggests the brooding demeanor of this long-time companion.
In the 1930s Neel survived on work for the Federal Art Project. Like many other artists, writers and intellectuals during this period she became involved in numerous left-wing organizations and causes. As a member of the Artists Union, she joined picket lines, and she was briefly a member of the Communist Party.
She was a member of the Party when she painted “Nazis Murder Jews” (1936), a recollection of a prescient Communist torchlight parade. When shown at the A.C.A. Galleries, a critic said it was an interesting picture but the “sign is too obvious.” Responded Neel: “If they had noticed that sign, thousands of Jews might have been saved.”
Reflecting her Depression-era political and social concerns, she satirized activities of a venerable social-services organization in “Investigation of Poverty at the Russell Sage Foundation” in 1933. Recreating a scene she had witnessed, Neel depicted a weeping woman with seven children who were living under an overturned automobile, being questioned by a battery of well-dressed do-gooders. The foundation, said the artist, “never gave a penny to the poor, but they investigated the poor. Out of that came social security and welfare, but before that, you just starved to death.”
In 1935 Neel became romantically involved with a young Puerto Rican musician, José Santiago, and moved with him to Spanish Harlem. Before splitting up with Santiago in 1939, he fathered a son, Richard Neel. The painter remained in Spanish Harlem for a quarter century, painting neighbors and residents of that rundown area, whose courage and dignity she admired. “I love to paint people mutilated and beaten up by the rat race in New York,” she said.
Neel’s occasional views of buildings in the area, such as “Rag in Window” (1959), showed jutting fire escapes and drab, somber facades.
Soon after Santiago took off, Neel began a relationship with Sam Brody, a radical filmmaker and photographer, with whom she lived off and on for the next two decades. In 1941 she gave birth to another son, Hartley, who like his brother Richard was given the Neel name. Raised essentially by a single mother, the boys were educated in a private school into which they were talked by Neel, and attended prestigious universities and graduate schools. One ended up a doctor, the other a lawyer. Richard and Hartley, their spouses and children became subjects of numerous candid, but affectionate, Neel portraits.
After her father died in 1946, Neel painted a rather strange view of him in his coffin, reflecting both her grief and her resentment at his passive approach to life. “The format of this painting,” says curator Temkin, “recalls portraits of the dead in the art of Hispanic cultures.”
Neel did several likenesses of her doughty mother, the most touching of which was executed after Mrs Neel came to live with her daughter in New York. Pictured in 1953, a few months before she died of cancer, white-haired, frail and wrapped in a flannel bathrobe, the 86-year-old woman projects both the strength and depth that her daughter admired, and the weariness and fear that marked her last days. It is, says Temkin, “a portrait so searing that the most private of relationships becomes a public one…Mrs Neel could be not only Alice’s but anyone’s elderly mother.”
From time to time Neel created still lifes, which she regarded as a “rest” from doing more trying portraits. “It’s just composing and thinking about lines and colors, and often flowers,” she said. An unusual example is “Thanksgiving” (1965), depicting a frozen capon thawing in a sink. The adjacent Ajax bottle, Neel joked, was her contribution to Pop art.
Laboring in relative obscurity for years, Neel continued to paint in her unswervingly candid and realistic manner. She had several shows at New York’s A.C.A. Galleries and elsewhere, but they attracted little attention.
Then, in the early 1960s, after she moved across Central Park from East 108th Street to West 107th Street, she began to benefit from the resurgence of figurative art and the onset of the women’s movement. “A rich constellation of circumstances that included the dawning of the women’s movement and the art world’s rekindled interest in representation and the human figure focused the spotlight on Neel and her work,” writes Temkin in the exhibition catalogue. Neel’s unusual lifestyle and sassy personality enhanced interest in her work, and helped open doors to celebrity sitters.
She began to create portraits of New York artists, poets, critics and performers she knew, documenting the vibrant cultural milieu of which she found herself an increasingly well-known member. Her regeneration was reflected in larger canvases with livelier brushwork and brighter, more intense colors, making for energetic likenesses often further animated by an acerbic wit. Neel’s work documented her dictum that “When portraits are good art they reflect the culture, the time and many other things.”
Among her prominent art-world subjects were fellow artists Benny Andrews, Isabel Bishop, Red Grooms, Duane Hanson, Marisol, Moses and Raphael Soyer, Faith Ringgold, Robert Smithson and Andy Warhol. There were curators John Baur, Tom Freudenheim, Henry Geldhzler and Frank O’Hara, and art historians Ann Sutherland Harris, Cindy Nemser and Linda Nochlin. While some of Neel’s likenesses of ordinary people tended to be over the top, she painted these well-known figures with respect and perception.
Neel started in 1960 by depicting poet Frank O’Hara, who was also an influential curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Over the course of five posing sessions she showed him in what she termed “a romantic falconlike profile with a bunch of lilacs” in the background, very much the image of an admired poet and curator.
A second, this time frontal, portrait is much less flattering, suggesting some conflict had erupted between the painter and sitter. In the latter likeness, as Neel described it, “His teeth looked like tombstones; the lilacs had withered.” Neel biographer Pamela Allara calls it “a visualization of pure hysteria, a man in the throes of a nervous breakdown….[O’Hara] is less a man creatively inspired than one living on the edge.” (Within six years O’Hara was dead, at the age of 40.)
As Richard Flood observes in the catalogue, this “is a cruel portrait….a violently assaultive representation,” which makes “one wonder what transpired between the first sitting and the last.” Neel felt the second likeness “expressed his troubled life more than the first,” but O’Hara was not thrilled by it. He never wrote about her and never included her work in an exhibition at MoMA.
Neel’s vigorously brushed portrait of then-youthful painter Robert Smithson in 1962 showed an intense, serious artist with a bad case of acne. Eight years later Smithson startled the art world with “Spiral Jetty,” an enormous environmental sculpture made of earth, rocks and salt crystals in the Great Salt Lake, Utah.
Perhaps the most sympathetic and warm art-world likeness is that of African-American painter, sculptor and performance artist Faith Ringgold (1977), strong and regal in a flowing red, white and black dress. Neel met Ringgold, famed for her vivid story quilts, through the National Women’s Caucus.
One of Neel’s most memorable portraits, of Pop art star Andy Warhol, was painted in 1970, two years after Valerie Solanis had tried to kill him with a handgun. A wan, androgynous figure with drooping breasts, his vulnerability is underscored by the corset he wears to support stomach muscles injured in the shooting. This graphic depiction is decidedly at odds with the chic glamour of the Warhol myth. “Imposing on the portrait a sympathy Warhol never sought, Neel makes the artist the victim of the alternative life-style he so visibly embraced,” says Allara.
The flamboyantly heterosexual Neel befriended a number of homosexual artists, including Warhol, whose lives and art were so different from her own. “Andy is nice. Considerate and rather quiet,” she said. “But as an art-world personality he represents a certain pollution of this era.”
Among those whom Neel portrayed from the periphery of the art scene was Jackie Curtis, who had been born as a man, but became a transvestite star in Warhol’s 1968 film, Flash. Neel first painted a double portrait of Curtis in drag with her partner, Ritta Redd. In “Jackie Curtis as a Boy” (1972), she depicted Curtis wearing a St Louis Cardinals baseball shirt and jeans.
“David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock” (1970) shows art critics Bourdon, resplendent in his underwear and red socks, in contrast to his companion, Battcock, in a suit and tie. Both men, who were active in New York’s avant-garde art scene, appeared in Warhol’s underground productions.
“Linda Nochlin and Daisy” (1973) is a particularly tense and penetrating portrait, reflecting the unusual situation in which the artist engaged a famous art historian as subject. The awkward poses of mother and daughter, exacerbated by the application of clashing colors, add up to an uncomfortable image for viewers. Nochlin’s staring eyes seem to be challenging both the painter and the viewer, in contrast to the more open, welcoming gaze of the child. It is a powerful, provocative, affecting image.
Most sympathetic of all Neel’s likenesses are those of her sons and their families. “Nancy and the Rubber Plant” (1975), measuring a substantial 80 by 36 inches, shows her daughter-in-law, Nancy Neel, posing in the artist’s apartment. She sits under an overflowing tropical plant and a 1940 Neel portrait of Audrey McMahon, one-time New York regional director of the Federal Art Project.
“Andrew” (1978) depicts Neels’ five-month-old grandson after his mother laid him down to change his diaper.
“Annemarie and Georgie” (1982) is a relatively straightforward view of her nephew, George Washington Neel, a college language professor, and his German-born wife, seated on a colorful couch in their home in Bloomsburg, Pa.
It was not until the 1970s that Neel’s career really took off. In 1974, at the age of 74, she was finally given her first one-woman exhibition at a major museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1977 art historian Ann Sutherland Harris called Neel the most underrated artist of the century, “the finest portraitist that America has produced since 1900.”
Her new-found celebrity status was confirmed by election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, receiving a National Women’s Caucus for the Arts outstanding achievement award from President Jimmy Carter, and appearing twice on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. At least toward the end of her life, some of her appeal was clearly linked to her outspoken, contrary personality, the feisty, in-your-face persona she cultivated.
Even as her health deteriorated in her last few years, Neel maintained an active schedule of painting, lecturing and varied public appearances. Her enthusiasm for her life and the course she had followed never wavered. “I had a very hard life and I paid for it,” she observed in 1975, “but I did what I wanted. I’m a high-powered person.”
Receiving an honorary degree at what is now Moore College of Art and Design, her alma mater, in 1971, she declared, “It is a great time to be…an artist. Everything has been and is being tried out in art and this will…enrich consciousness. Art is hard work but it is a great way of life.”
Her only self-portrait, characteristically unsparing and graphic, was executed when she was a robust 80. It shows the artist holding a paintbrush and cloth, wearing only her eyeglasses. This appropriately audacious coda to a colorful and productive career is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. (Also owned by the Portrait Gallery but not in the exhibition are likenesses of scientist Linus Pauling, composer Virgil Thomson and author Kate Millet.)
When she died of cancer in her West 107th Street apartment in 1984, obituaries recalled her plucky life, her dedication to art, and her struggles against the prevailing tides of the art world. The New York Times, calling her the “quintessential bohemian,” stressed the early neglect of her work and the later vindication of her art.
Persevering through a lifetime of reversals and depravation, unwavering in pursuing her chosen style in the face of art-world opposition, Alice Neel created some of the most compelling and memorable portraits of the last half-century. An improbable star late in life, she is bound to attract a new crowd of admirers as a result of the current retrospective.
As Anne d’Harnoncourt, director and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art has observed, “The Centenary salute to Alice Neel marks a particularly opportune moment for the first full examination of an artist who transformed the contemporary portrait and, in doing so, influenced succeeding generations.”
The exhibition catalogue, Alice Neel, is beautifully illustrated with 175 reproductions – 100 in full color – of the artist’s work, and photographs chronicling her life. Edited by exhibition curator Temkin, the 198-page book contains useful essays by Temkin, assistant curator Susan Rosenberg and Richard Flood, chief curator at the Walker Art Center.
Reminiscences by Neel’s subjects and a detailed chronology of her life add much to the book’s value. Published in softcover by the Philadelphia Museum and in hardcover by Harry N. Abrams in association with the Philadelphia Museum, it will be treasured by Neel fans and those interested in Twentieth Century American art.
Also highly recommended is Alice Neel by Boston University art historian Patricia Hills, which weaves taped conversations with the painter, and an enlightening text and many illustrations into a valuable survey of Neel’s career and art. It was published by Abrams in 1983 and reprinted in 1995.
Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s American Portrait Gallery by Brandeis University art historian Pamela Allara, offers additional insights into Neel’s contributions to American art, cultural and social history. It was published by Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England in 1998.
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