A portrait painter who flew under the radar of critical acclaim and artistic trends during her lifetime is now hailed around the world as a master and one of the 20th century’s coolest people.
Alice Neel (1900-1984) may be the greatest painter you’ve never heard of.
Nonetheless, her bona fides speak for themselves: she was part of the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village bohemian scenes; a contributor to The Masses (where her art appeared alongside that of Art Young, John Sloan, and many others); a member of the Works Progress Administration’s New York branch (with Ben Shahn, Bernarda Bryson, Louis Lozowick, Reginald Marsh); an intimate of the Beats, the hippies and Warhol’s Factory.
Neel even appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” where she proved to be a terrific foil to Carson and a totally charming person. Carson conducted an intelligent and sensitive interview, reminding us of why he was always the King of Late Night hosts. This “Tonight Show” segment, from early 1984, is joyful to watch and yet also a little sad. Joyful because Neel was garnering the sort of national attention her career warranted and sad because eight months later she was dead.
Neel’s paintings, and her fate, are not unlike the writings, and fate, of Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996), whose quietly powerful profiles of New York City’s underdogs and eccentrics were nearly forgotten until Up in The Old Hotel, a 1992 anthology of his work, appeared in time for him to enjoy some serenity in his golden years. (Mitchell’s 1965 masterpiece, Joe Gould’s Secret, was reissued at the time, too, and became the basis for the 2000 Ian Holm-Stanley Tucci film).
Indeed, some of the people Neel painted made their first appearance in Mitchell’s writing—Joe Gould and Kenneth Fearing, among others. But Neel’s lack of notoriety during her lifetime was also due to the fact that she chose the least popular genre (portrait painting) and most out-of-date style (realism) to make it in the modern art world of New York City, when and where abstract expressionism and Pop Art ruled the roost. Most of all, though, her relative obscurity can be chalked up to her gender. Yes, the art world was dominated by men, who owned most of the influential galleries, wrote the reviews for the influential journals and curated most of the shows at the influential museums. And, throughout most of her career, Neel was uncompromising in her approach to them.
As she told Carson, “I went against the grain, and you get punished for that.”
Three decades after her death, however, Neel’s star is in the ascendancy. Three major exhibitions, including one at the Van Gogh Foundation in Arles, France, are going on in Europe right now, and Yale University Press has just published a magnificent volume, Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life, which contains 130 color reproductions of her work. The massive folio not only serves as the career retrospective that has been waiting for decades to appear, it’s also the catalog for the exhibitions taking place in Europe. Every single one of the images in this book—most of which are portraits, though there are some excellent still lifes, cityscapes, and street scenes, as well—jump out at the viewer as though they were painted last week.
Neel’s portraits remain fresh and timeless because she painted people as they were, robed in the way they lived, without artifice or the trappings of classical poses, mythical scenes or references. They were not perfect portraits (nor were they perfect people!). They were idiosyncratic, just as their subjects were in real life, adhering to the perhaps fanciful idea that we are all unique individuals worthy of attention.
Take her portrait of Art Shields from 1951. Though you may not know anything about Shields’ biography, you know all you need to know from the portrait: the intensity of the eyes, the distant gaze, the lines of worry in his face, the coiled arm and thumb locked into his pants’ loop, as though he had something urgent that needed doing after the sitting for the artist was done. As it turns out, Shields did have an urgent lifelong mission. A war resister and unabashed Communist, he was also author of a gritty 2-volume autobiography, My Shaping Up Years and On the Battle Lines, 1919-1939.
The same idiosyncratic energy jumps off the canvas from her portrait of Gus Hall, who headed the Communist Party USA and ran for U.S. President a number of times. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear this was a lost Van Gogh painting. Ditto Neel’s portrait of Sari Dienes, another neglected woman artist who influenced Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg; and her gently melancholic joint portrait of Raphael and Moses Soyer, brothers who created their own unique portraiture styles.
Arguably, Neel’s most startling portrait is the early image (1933) of Joe Gould, depicted with three penises. Also jarring are the portraits of members of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, including Jackie Curtis (name-checked by Lou Reed in “Walk on the Wild Side”: “Jackie is just speeding away / Thought she was James Dean for a day”); Gerard Malanga and Warhol himself. In fact, her image of Warhol without his shirt, showing his scars from Valerie Solanas’ assassination attempt, is among her most haunting and sad. Also eye-popping was a 1967 portrait of Joey Skaggs, who gained some notoriety at the time by dragging his crucifixion sculpture through the streets of Manhattan in protest of the Vietnam War. The six-foot-tall canvas captures Skaggs in his hippie-era regalia, and Neel rewards him with a bulge in his pants that rivals that of Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls’.
Neel also painted a number of brilliant streetscapes, including one done for the WPA “Ninth Avenue El,” 1935, and “107th X Broadway” 1976. Both recall Edward Hopper with their ominous shadows, portents of death and suggestions of quiet menace.
Alice Neel was born in the Philadelphia area. She met her first husband, Carlos Enriquez, while she was in an art school for women in Philadelphia, then moved with him to Havana, where they had two children. One child died in infancy, the other was taken away from her by Enriquez when he split. By then, she was living in Greenwich Village (1931) and burrowed deep into the bohemian scene. Around this time, she had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. After her release from the hospital, she became embroiled in leftist politics, using her talents and energies to warn people about the rise of Nazism in Germany.
Her friendship with Joe Gould, who claimed to be writing an “Oral History of the World,” inspired Neel to create what she called a “Visual History of the World” and which she compared to Balzac’s “The Human Comedy,” a sprawling series of interconnected novels—an apt metaphor for her entire body of work.
After she left the downtown bohemians, she moved to Spanish Harlem, had two more children and raised them as a single mother. She came under the sway of the social realist photography of Walker Evans and Ben Shahn and, as stated, joined them as a member of the WPA programs of the 1930s. She stuck with realism even when abstract expressionism took over every gallery and art journal. She never wavered from this path, setting up her easel in her apartments in Greenwich Village, Spanish Harlem and, later, a cottage in Spring Lake, N.J. (she never really had a proper studio) for anyone whose visage captured her fancy. She did not just paint the well-known and/or the well-born, though there are portraits of Warhol, poet Frank O’Hara, artists Robert Smithson, and Benny Andrews, as well as shapers of the art status quo like Henry Geldzahler, an influential curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Elinor Poindexter, an influential gallery owner. Mostly, though, she painted her neighbors, kindred spirits, family members and perfect strangers she met on the streets of New York.
One reason perhaps her art “translated” so much more easily to Europe was that her work had an affinity with the work of revered European artists like Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Oscar Kokoschka and Van Gogh. It’s true. When you see Neel’s work side by side with these masters, there’s no question that they had an influence.
Despite all the praise and acceptance from overseas, Neel was not able to get her work in the institutions that accorded “canonical” status on an American artist: the Whitney, Guggenheim or MoMA. She finally got a retrospective at the Whitney (Feb. 7-March 17, 1974) that included 58 of her portraits but no catalog—this is the show Neel told Carson about on the Tonight Show clip above. The Whitney redressed this with a larger, posthumous, show in 2000-2001.
The ultimate sign, at least for all self-respecting hipsters, that Neel was one of the coolest people of the 20th century was that she appeared (as “the bishop’s mother”) in one of the Holy Grails of the Beat Generation— Pull My Daisy, a 1959 film directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, spontaneously narrated by Jack Kerouac, “starring” Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Larry Rivers and Neel, and featuring a brilliant musical score by modernist composer David Amram, who also appears as Mezz McGillicuddy in the film.
Still, Neel doesn’t need her lily gilded by linking her with hip scenes. She was, plainly and simply, one of the major artists of her time.
Images of Alice Neel paintings were supplied courtesy of publisher Mercatorfonds (Belgium), in collaboration with the Ateneum Art Museum (Finland) and Yale University Press. Additional images used by permission of The Estate of Alice Neel web site