Alice Neel at David Zwirner and Zwirner & Wirth
May 14 – June 20, 2009
Alice Neel: Selected Works at David Zwirner
533 West 19th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues,
New York City, 212-727-2070
May 6 – June 20, 2009
Alice Neel: Nudes of the 1930s at Zwirner & Wirth
32 East 69th Street, 32 E 69 Street, between Madison and Park Avenues,
New York City, 212 517 8677 (Zwirner & Wirth now closed)
Alice Neel (1900-1984) is widely considered one of the most important American painters of the twentieth century, but it took critics decades to come to terms with her oeuvre. Independent from any art movement – despite many friendships with artists and art professionals of her generation – Neel was a force all her own. In the context of American art, which in particular in the 1940s and 1950s was almost exclusively associated with Abstract Expressionism, Neel’s work seemed to contain an unusual nod to a past aesthetic. Like the Abstract Expressionists, Neel also had her roots in European art. But rather than Surrealism, her principal inspiration was German Neuesachlichkeit painters like George Grosz, Otto Dix and Christian Schad. Her many still lifes and portraits of friends, family members, lovers, and strangers, reveal a similar fusion of expressionist color and line with a keen eye for inherent psychological and emotional complexities. The individuals she depicted were often deeply intertwined with her personal life and addressed subject matters close to her heart, ranging from gender and racial inequality to politics. In Neel’s work it is evident that to her, people and their stories mattered most. It was her particular skill, as well as passionate mission, to paint them with honesty and sincerity. Thinking of herself as a “collector of souls,” Neel created an oeuvre that not only reveals different facets of humanity, but also sums up the diversity of American urban society.
In May of this, after taking over the Alice Neel Estate from Robert Miller Gallery, David Zwirner opened two concurrent exhibitions of her work. At Zwirner & Wirth, there was an intimate installation of Neel’s nudes from the 1930s. Some of the works show Neel in autobiographical scenarios – in others she has portrayed friends and acquaintances. It is work that followed probably the most traumatic years of her life – the late 1920s – and was made during a period, when she regained emotional strength and confidence. Neel’s biography of the preceding years read like an emotional rollercoaster ride. In 1924, Neel had met the Cuban artist Carlos Enríquez (1900-1957), son of a prominent family in Havana at the Chester Springs summer school of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The couple married the following year and in 1926 they traveled to Cuba together, where Neel gave birth to her first daughter Santillana in December. In 1927, the family moved to New York City, but just before her first birthday, Santillana died of diphtheria. Shortly after the baby’s death, Neel became pregnant again with her second child, Isabetta, who was born in 1928. In 1930, Carlos returned to Cuba, taking Isabetta with him, before continuing on to Paris by himself, leaving the child with his family. In the year that followed, Neel lived through a massive nervous breakdown, several suicide attempts, hospitalization, and a prolonged stay in the suicide ward of the Philadelphia General Hospital. She was released from the sanatorium in 1931 and returned to her parents’ home in Colwyn, Pennsylvania. Not until the end of that year, after visiting her close friend and frequent subject, Nadya Olyanova, did Neel move to New York City.
Therefore it comes as no surprise that the 1930s show Neel as a matured soul. Her subjects reveal a new sense of vulnerability that leaves one more intensely guessing about their darker sides and the experiences they have had. One of the most compelling works in this particular installation is Nadya and Nona (1933). The painting shows two nude women lying side-by-side; one of them being Olyanova. Some of their physical features have been exaggerated, such as the white, almost ashen skin tones, the dark shadows that accentuate each body curve and bone, or the long eye lashes. The atmosphere is sensual, erotic, and mysterious. Though it remains unclear if the women are lovers, an unquestionable bond exists between them. Be it by gender, history or feeling – they are confidantes in a world solely their own.
In several of the watercolors and drawings, Neel has depicted herself alongside her longtime friend and lover at the time, John Rothschild. A Harvard graduate from a wealthy family who ran a travel business, Rothchild met Neel in 1932. In these drawings, which are some of Neel’s most intimate works, she is in her thirties, beautiful and curvy, with her long red hair sprawling liberally. In Alice and John in the Bathroom (1935), Neel can be seen sitting on a toilet seat while urinating. John stands at the sink, urinating with an erect penis in his hand. Various shades of red accentuate details, such as Alice’s pubic hair, the toilet seat, John’s slippers and the head of his penis. Alice’s legs are turned outward, her arms crossed over her head, almost taking on the posture of an Indian deity. The scene could not be more humbling in its honesty and lack of glorification. Leaving the viewer in the role of a voyeur, Alice and John in the Bathroom is an ode to the pure sense of trust and privacy that two individuals, despite all imperfections, can experience when truly caring for each other.
At David Zwirner, Neel is only revealed through the individuals she portrayed. Gone are the self-portraits. The paintings here range in date from the late 1940s to early 1980s. Several of her subjects, like her son Hartley, for example, Neel would paint repeatedly over time. Throughout her life, Neel was attracted to strong individuals, in particular women, who were confident in their sexuality. The most provocative work along these lines is a portrait of Annie Sprinkle from 1982. Neel depicts the former prostitute and porn star turned performance artist, facing the viewer frontally, eye-to-eye. The boldness and dignity of Manet’s Olympia comes to mind, which in its time was not less shocking. Even more than twenty-five years after it was conceived, Sprinkle’s portrait does not fail to make an impact. This might partially be due to the stark contrast between Sprinkle’s half-smile and the dominatrix outfit she wears that leaves her genitals exposed. But it probably is mostly due to the company she finds herself in – the various children, young adults, men, and women both dressed and nude. Overall, she is just one of many colorful individuals in the room. While Sprinkle’s make up suggests her profession, just as a fur stole around another’s sitter’s shoulders might suggest her financial background, we do not know her intimately. What Neel does give us, however, is her view on how she perceived the person before her. It is a character assessment of sorts and a testament to the fact that Neel was able to access something deeply within herself, to be able to reveal something meaningful about somebody else.
Though Neel only showed sporadically in the beginning, by the 1960s, she was exhibiting regularly and in 1974, the Whitney Museum of American Art organized their first retrospective (another one was held in 2000). In 1984, she appeared on the Johnny Carson show. Despite all the recognition during her lifetime, it was not until more recently that the impact of Neel’s oeuvre on younger generation painters has become more evident. The exhibition at Zwirner, as well as a major survey of her work, organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and scheduled for spring 2010, will provide ample opportunity to convince oneself of exactly that.