|Ballet Dancer, 1950. Hall Collection. © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London|
I am coming to the end of January artists' birthdays but there are a couple more really important ones to write about, especially Alice Neel (January 28, 1900 - October 13, 1984). Alice Neel was one of the great American painters of the twentieth century, a pioneer about all artists and especially among women artists who have often been constrained by social norms to painting "the nice and the pretty."
|Mother and Child, 1967|
Neel was never fashionable or in step with avant-garde movements. Sympathetic to the expressionist spirit of northern Europe and Scandinavia and to the darker arts of Spanish painting, she painted in a style and with an approach distinctively her own.
Neel was born near Philadelphia in 1900 and trained at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, against her middle class parent's wished (naturally.) She became a painter with a strong social conscience and equally strong left-wing beliefs. In the 1930s she lived in Greenwich Village, New York and enrolled as a member of the Works Progress Administration for which she painted urban scenes. Her portraits of the 1930s embraced left wing writers, artists and trade unionists.
Neel left Greenwich Village for Spanish Harlem in 1938 to get away from the rarefied atmosphere of an art colony. There she painted the Puerto Rican community, casual acquaintances, neighbors and people she encountered on the street. Lovers came and went, leaving chaos and heartbreak in their wake; one was a Puerto Rican musician who left Neel months after she gave birth to his son. Another was a junkie who destroyed all of Neel's work that he could get his hands on. It was as if she was drawn to that which created pain and suffering in her life which she then used as material for her work.
|Alice Neel in her studio in New York, 1960 Photo: GETTY|
In the 1960s she moved to the Upper West Side and made a determined effort to reintegrate with the art world. This led to a series of dynamic portraits of artists, curators and gallery owners, among them Frank O'Hara, Andy Warhol and the young Robert Smithson. She also maintained her practice of painting political personalities, including black activists and supporters of the women's movement.
|Black Spanish Family, 1950, Estate of Alice Neel|
Living most of her life in poverty, it would be wrong to believe that she didn't resent her artistic outsider status. When she moved to Spanish Harlem in the 1940's, she resorted to shoplifting and had to life on welfare to survive. Yet she was compelled to follow her own artistic muse, painting all that she encountered - whether her fellow citizens of Harlem, prostitutes, fellow artists, her family, her lovers, street workers and sex workers. Her neo-realism was deeply unfashionable in the heydey of Abstract Expressionism and seemed old fashioned. But what seemed old fashioned then, is now seen as emotionally astute and an often disturbing look into her subject's inner lives. "I don't do realism," Neel once said, going on to declare that a room, a chair, a table and a person were all the same to her – except that a person is human and therefore essentially psychological.
Her life was marked by extreme and painful episodes. She lost her first baby to diphtheria in 1927. Three years later, her second daughter was kidnapped by her estranged husband who took the child to live with him in Cuba. Neel never regained custody of her daughter and was only able to reconnect with her in 1934. Neel had a complete breakdown, tried to commit suicide, and ended up in the hospital for a long time.
By the 60's, when the grip of Abstract Expressionism loosed on the art world, Neel began to achieve a belated fame. She was taken up by many of the fashionable and famous, including Andy Warhol. From the review in the tTs his torso, the result of gunshot wounds he had sustained when a member of the Factor shot him, two years earlier. The pop artist's middle -aged breasts sag ...Although Neel has barely sketched in the background, she has produced an extraordinarily rich psychological account of a man reduced from a cultural icon to a collection of greenish skin and bone." She was called "one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century" by Barry Walker, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which organized a retrospective of her work in 2010.
|Alice Neel. Portrait in Old Age|
Her late found fame and fortune meant little to Neel except that she could now buy all the art materials she wanted. Her son Hartley explained, “ultimately what success meant to Alice was the ability to paint without worrying about how to pay for canvas and materials”. His wife Ginny agrees. “When she died she left a couple of dresses and painting smocks and that was about it.” As long as Alice Neel was able to paint the people in her world the way she wanted, nothing else mattered. She even looked at herself in the same analytical, probing way that she looked at all her subject. At 80, a few years before her death in 1948, she painted herself naked except for her glasses, a brush in one hand, a rag in another. Seated in a stripped chair, which shows up many times in her work, she does not fudge on on the signs of age on her body but is self appraising and yet funny but also, dignified. Her vision people in her portraits shows the soul that makes us uniquely human and for that, we return time and time again, seeing, as her daughter in law Ginny said, "Alice loved a wretch. She loved the wretch in the hero and the hero in the wretch. She saw that in all of us, I think."
|Pregnant Maria. Neel defied the conventions of the nude in Western art, portraying women as strong, defiant, and honest yet vulnerable.|
Alice Neel and the Faces of New York here