Though Neel is celebrated primarily for her portraits--she is sometimes considered the court painter of New York's midcentury demimonde--her body of work actually splits into three fairly distinct styles, beginning with a series of intentionally naive watercolors. That these early efforts are woefully underrepresented in the current retrospective can hardly be attributed to curatorial oversight. In fact, much of Neel's early work was burned in a jealous fit by her lover, the aptly named roustabout Kenneth Doolittle.
Neel's second phase--a flirtation with social realism in the vein of the Ashcan School--is also poorly documented, as the WPA, which employed her intermittently throughout the Depression, later sold many of her canvases for scrap. (The Walker has added a number of ink character studies and later family portraits that didn't make it into the show's New York incarnation, however.)
The Thirties paintings that have survived reveal Neel's dark mood at the time--she had recently lost a child, attempted suicide, and been institutionalized. In one early scene, "Well Baby Clinic," Neel paints a typical Depression-era tableau, the children's hospital, as a sea of featureless grotesques. The miasma of sickness is almost tangible. In a highly autobiographical watercolor from the same year, "After the Death of the Child", Neel paints herself as a wraithlike figure lurking at the edge of a playground under an oppressive winter sky.
Not all of Neel's early work is so cheerless. In a 1935 portrait of the beat poet Kenneth Fearing, she celebrates the effusion of life on New York's streets. Here the central figure melds with the background streetscape while a procession of archetypes--which, in the old medieval tradition, represent every stage of life from the cradle to the grave--march below his watchful eyes. Fearing's chest is opened, and, in a literal depiction of his progressive politics, a skeleton squeezes blood from his heart. (Literal and prescient, as it turned out: Fearing later died from heart disease.)
Neel's best-known painting from the Thirties is certainly her portrait of Joe Gould, the Greenwich Village eccentric immortalized in Joseph Mitchell's 1964 New Yorker profile. (The painting even made an appearance in last year's film adaptation of Joe Gould's Secret, which featured the ever-craggy Susan Sarandon as Neel). Neel's painting seems at first to be a send-up of Gould's self-aggrandizing persona: Gould, smiling like a satyr, is shown with three penises hanging from his abdomen, a parody of his professed machismo. Yet there is also something totemic about the painting: It's posed as a mock triptych, which, along with the phallic trinity, seems to allude to medieval religious art. Seen through Neel's eyes, Gould is less an object of mockery than a subject of mythic dimensions.
Around 1938, Neel relocated uptown to Spanish Harlem, and the move seems to have freed her: She was at once isolated from the downtown art establishment and surrounded by a wealth of new subjects in the neighborhood tenements. One of her finest paintings from this period, "T.B. Harlem" depicts a Spanish neighbor convalescing from a tuberculosis operation. Neel paints the patient as a Christ figure, with a white chest bandage standing in for the stigmata. The young man's neck is elongated and bent, and his hand is placed lightly over the wound in his side. Here, in a departure from some of her earlier portraits, Neel reveals a profound sympathy for the fragility of flesh: Her depiction of the becalmed sufferer seems to take inspiration from the Mexican retratos del muertos, or "death portraits."
Neel's paintings of women also reveal a guarded empathy. In 1978, for instance, she painted Margaret Evans, nude and pregnant. The portrait, which is classically posed, shows Evans, belly hugely distended, serenely returning the viewer's gaze. In a mirror off to one side, though, her face, seen in profile, is creased with anxiety and exhaustion. Interestingly, the painting uses an optical effect similar to that of Manet's famous painting of the bar at the Folies-Bergère--though to radically different ends. Manet positioned his cold-eyed courtesan as another of Paris's pleasurable commodities, complete with a male customer gazing expectantly into the mirror behind the bar. Neel presents Evans in the full flush of maternity, while hinting at its attendant danger. Whereas Manet parodied the ogling of the male painter, Neel offers only Evans's level, unflinching gaze: Olympia beholds her own reflection.
Oddly, although Neel occasionally painted glimpses of herself into her early work, she didn't turn her gaze inward until near the end of her life. When she did finally produce a self-portrait, at age 80, her eyesight was failing and gravity had worked its course. Her body, like those of her subjects, had begun to deteriorate and sag earthward. Yet the portrait remains one of Neel's bravest works. In it, she is seated in a chair, calm and composed despite her unlovely nudity. Her expression recalls the last line to another Joseph Mitchell story (spoken by an aging circus sideshow performer): "If the truth was known, we're all freaks together."
Yet, while apparently acquiescing gracefully to old age and the grave, Neel allows herself one flourish: One of her hands, painted as a skeletal addendum to her soft body, still grips a paintbrush. That hand bespeaks a well-earned vanity: Neel made something that would last, and she knew it.