Lady of the Portrait

Nearly two decades after Alice Neel's death, her cold-eyed humanism has begun to look revolutionary

When Alice Neel got her first retrospective she was 74 years old--a Methuselah by art-world standards. The exhibit, at the Whitney, was apparently a rather slipshod affair, and Neel's paintings were wedged clumsily into an exhibit of American folk art. Last summer, when the Whitney debuted a major Neel retrospective celebrating the artist's centenary, which is visiting the Walker through September 2, those same paintings were clumped in with an installation by the decidedly unfolksy agitprop artist Barbara Kruger. Even 17 years after her death, it seems, no one has quite figured out how to shoehorn Neel into the art world: Was she a traditional portraitist in the vein of Mary Cassatt, or a feminist pathfinder who blazed a trail for artists like Kruger? Most now agree that she was some kind of American original. The question is, Which kind?

Neel's legacy is complicated by the fact that, during her lifetime, she was always slightly out of step with the art world's march. In the 1930s, when Neel lived in Greenwich Village, she fell among beats (an affiliation retrospectively inflated by her appearance in the 1959 Robert Frank/Jack Kerouac film Pull My Daisy). But Neel's bohemianism (like that of many other beats) was mostly a put-on. She was, in fact, born into a respectably bourgeois Philadelphia family. As a "woman painter," Neel was also inevitably lumped in with the fledgling women's movement--one of the few commissions she received during her long and commercially un-illustrious career was for a Time cover portrait of Kate Millett. Neel seems to have enjoyed the attention: In a documentary film, included in the Walker exhibit, she compares her career to Napoleon's famous self-coronation. "In my day I was scandalous," the lively 78-year-old says. "I did as I pleased."

The way of all flesh: Alice Neel's first self-portrait, painted at age 80
The way of all flesh: Alice Neel's first self-portrait, painted at age 80

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Yet, while Neel was happy to ride either wave to renown, she rarely flogged her feminist or her bohemian credentials. Throughout her career, in fact, the art of self-promotion--then, as now, as integral to success in the art world as technique--seemed to confound her. In one instance she convinced the poet Frank O'Hara, then curator of the Museum of Modern Art, to sit for a portrait. Her motive was transparent: She wanted a solo exhibition. And her portrait of O'Hara, done in heroic half-profile, is embarrassingly flattering. When she'd finished the first painting, though, Neel dashed off a second (which, for some reason, hangs all the way across the Walker gallery from the first). In her second portrait, we see what Neel really thought of O'Hara: She gives him rotten teeth, a madman's stare, and what appear to be nests of acne. No surprise, she never got her show.

Neel was an honest portraitist, which might have kept her from ever being a commercially successful one. Unlike an inspired sycophant like Singer Sargent, who painted people the way they saw themselves, Neel painted what she saw in them. Which isn't to say she was a realist: She was drawn to her subjects' physical deformities, and she regarded their lumpy, misshapen bodies with an unsentimental, almost clinical, gaze. Neel was always cajoling her sitters into posing nude, not because she was interested in the topography of the human body--her pictures of people, with their bugging eyes and outsize features, are more caricature than portraiture--but because she wanted to breach their psychic armor. In one late portrait, for instance, Andy Warhol is seen shirtless, gunshot scars crisscrossing his abdomen and a girdle apparently keeping his guts from falling out. Warhol, the larger-than-life celebrity, is exposed, not as a fraud--which Neel thought he was--but as the inhabitant of a standard-issue human body. When one looks at the painting now, Neel doesn't seem cold so much as melancholy: This is the way of all flesh, she seems to be saying. Warhol's nakedness levels the playing field.

In her illuminating catalog essay, the exhibit's curator, Ann Temkin, argues that Neel's frankly carnal style was central to her identity as a female artist. For centuries, the female body was recruited, dissembled, and idealized by male painters. Neel's gaze was implicitly female, unabashedly sexual, often bemused, occasionally angry. She was, in some sense, reclaiming Olympia, the nude female odalisque turned by Manet into an objet d'art and embraced by the French impressionists as the feminine ideal. In Neel's case, however, it was Olympia who was doing the watching. Considering impressionism's influence on Neel, Temkin writes, "Instead of taking Cézanne's work in a direction leading art away from life, [Neel] explored how it might lead painting toward life, toward private meaning, and in her case, toward imagery directly connected to the life of a woman."

Neel's posthumous canonization might smack of revisionism. In most cases, anyway, a revival of interest in a largely forgotten artist says more about our current cultural mores than about that artist's individual merits. But it's not hard to make a case for Neel's importance. Her obscurity in the Forties and Fifties seems mostly attributable to the art world's tastes: Abstract Expressionism was in; everything else was out. As a figurative painter, Neel earned the disdain of blowhards like Hilton Kramer, and little attention from disciples of Pollock's macho primitivism. Neel was perhaps less behind her times than ahead of them, though, and with the current revival of representational art, her work looks better than ever. At worst, her paintings are never less than compelling; at best, they represent a missing link between Cassatt and today's figurative painters.

 

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.

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