Alice Neel, Hartley, Oil on canvas, 1952
Alice Neel (1900-1984) was born in Pennsylvania. After graduating high school she performed secretarial jobs before attending Philadelphia School of Design for Women (what is now Moore College of Art and Design) three years later. During her time in university, she was classically trained in painting, both in landscape and figurative work. In 1924 she attended a summer program at the Pennsylvania of Academy of Fine Arts which is where she met her first husband, Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez. Shortly thereafter Alice and Carlos moved to Havana and she became pregnant two years later with her first child. Sadly this child, Santillana died of diphtheria before reaching her first birthday. This sad occurrence fueled much of Neel’s’ painting during this time. While her life wasn’t easy, Alice Neel always had drawing and painting which fueled much if not all of her existence. After the death of Santillana, she became pregnant once again and had another daughter named Isabetta. All throughout these events she never stopped painting and her style was evolving in a enigmatic way.
Richard Neel, still from “Alice Neel” documentary, 2007
In the 1930’s her life went through many more changes and levels of heartbreak. After the couple moved several times back and forth between New York, Pennsylvania and Cuba, Carlos decided to move back to Cuba and took Isabetta with him. This sent Alice into a downhill spiral resulting in several suicide attempts and a year long stay in a mental institution, where she produced more drawing. She later settled in Manhattan, had two sons (by different men) and started exhibiting. Even though her works were received well they were also considered quite controversial. While in New York she was connected to the burgeoning clandestine group of artists and followers of the Communist party in Greenwich village. While reading through the biography of Alice Neel, its easy to forget how different life was in the 1920’s and 40’s in America. It was a time of war and a time of the depression. When looking at the list of various lovers that entered and exited her life exhibited both in the written word and scrawled as portraits on canvas, her artwork becomes almost an unflinching diaristic memoir of love, life and loss.
Rita and Hubert, oil on canvas, 1958
A recent exhibition of Alice Neel’s paintings was on view both at David Zwirner and Zwirner and Wirth. The estate was recently acquired by the gallery and the exhibition along with the 2007 documentary “Alice Neel” made by her grandson Andrew Neel provided a generous viewing not only of her work, but also offered a reminder that the strokes she made were like notes and left a trail similarly to the bread crumbs strewn by Hansel and Gretal. I have always been drawn to her work and even before I knew much about her life, found her exaggerated forms of human flesh enticing. Her figures in the artistic vain of Alex Katz, aren’t truly representational but on another level delve into a more personal space giving the viewer a hint into the being now portrayed in two-dimension, gazing intently from a canvas.
Ruth Nude, oil on canvas, 1964
I sat through the entire viewing of the documentary and found myself filled with emotion more then once. I grinned and hmmm’d with the others who joined me in the dimly lit room sitting on squishy cubed stools. The story told is not one of joy, but of survival. Alice Neel survived through her art and now her art is what we have to remember her by. She is one of the few (if only) recognized figurative painters from this period of American History and while she chose to bypass the artistic trends of the time (including Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism) her work remains influential and my mind drifts currently to the strokes of Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, and dare I say the sprightly Dana Schutz?
Dana Gordon, oil on canvas, 1972
From the David Zwirner press release: Through her choice of subjects, her work was engaged with issues related to gender and racial inequality, family dynamics, labor struggles, and violence. At the same time, her reexamination of the human body paralleled the cultural upheaval of the sexual revolution and women’s movement: her work challenged the Western artistic tradition that regarded a woman’s proper place in the arts as sitter or muse.
Hartley Neel, still from “Alice Neel” documentary, 2007
1955, October 11 and 17: Neel is interviewed by FBI agents, whose files show that she has been under investigation as early as 1951 owing to her periodic involvement with the Communist party. The files describe her as a ‘romantic Bohemian type Communist.’ According to her sons, Neel asked the agents to sit for portraits. They declined.
“Alice Neel” was on view at David Zwirner and concurrently at Zwirner and Wirth from May 14th-June 20th.