Phoebe Hoban’s Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty
In 1974, a decade before her death, Alice Neel was the subject of a career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Spanning the previous 40 years, the exhibition included 58 portraits, the genre for which, then as now, Neel is best known. In her absorbing biography, Phoebe Hoban quotes Neel on her approach to her work and her interest in the dark side of her sitter’s psyche: “I am never arbitrary. Before painting I talk to my sitters and they unconsciously assume their most typical pose—which, in a way, involved all their character and social standing; what the world has done to them and their retaliation” (p. 305). Such is the unending fascination of her work: her knack for getting under her sitter’s skin, behind the façade of physiognomy and comportment, and expose something raw and real. The reader of Hoban’s study gathers that Neel’s portraiture was, sometimes quite consciously, itself a form of retaliation against what the world had done to her.
Neel’s struggle began early, as a high-strung, unhappy girl caught in the conformity of small-town life in Colwyn, PA. Her mother was tough, stern, and misogynistic in her abysmal view of what young women—including her daughter—should hope to achieve. But her dominant personality provided an emotional and intellectual focus for the young Neel, who later attributed her own powers of observation to early training in reading her mother’s face for clues to her mood. (Her father was meek and distant; when in her mid-30’s, Neel attempted suicide by putting her head in an oven, her father mused aloud at how high the gas bill would be.)
Neel received her most salient art training at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, where she was strongly influenced by the pedagogical philosophy of Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. Wildly popular when it was published in 1923 and still widely read, the book proselytizes for everyday subject matter, emotional expressiveness, and a direct, alla prima method of which drawing was to be the basis. Neel would put these principles into action in her own work, with a twist.
She married the Cuban painter Carlos Enriquez in 1925 and spent much of the next year in Havana living with her husband’s family and traveling to the poor sections of town to paint. Her work from this period, which was in synch with the concern for the “emotions of everyday life” championed by the painters of the Vanguardia movement and the Grupo Minorista, positioned her in sympathy with the social realism that would preoccupy American artists on the Left during the 1930’s.
Meanwhile Neel’s personal life was a mess. After returning to the States, the impoverished couple lost their first daughter to diphtheria at the age of six months; Carlos left Neel shortly thereafter taking their second child, also a daughter, from whom Neel remained permanently estranged. For decades, she had several troubled, sometimes destructive relationships with men. One lover reportedly slashed a number of Neel’s paintings in a jealous rage; another, a “brilliant autodidact” and a volatile, sadistic bully, mercilessly persecuted her sons.
But then, Neel “seemed to thrive on drama and discordance” (p. 208); she painted continuously. In this she was greatly aided by the WPA’s Easel Painting Project, which employed her from the mid-1930’s until its cessation in the early 40’s. (Hoban’s overview of the radical political and artistic cross-currents of this milieu is superb.) Surrounded by kindred spirits in then-bohemian Greenwich Village, Neel’s nonconformist streak blossomed. Her gift—and it was awesome, even then—was her ability to nail her subject’s vulnerabilities and the effort to mask them. This facility was feared as much as admired. Joseph Solman, a painter and friend from the WPA years, said, “If she did a portrait of you, you wouldn’t recognize yourself, what she would do with you. She would almost disembowel you, so I was afraid to pose for her” (p. 108).
Of her dual portrait of Milton Resnick and Pat Pasloff, the critic Harold Rosenberg suggested that Neel “have that in a tent and charge a dollar admission.” In ARTnews, Valerie Peterson wrote that the portrait “really belongs in the closet with the skeletons” (p. 245). The homeless, eccentric Village character Joe Gould was pleased with his 1933 portrait in which, with a gleeful smirk, he displays his three sets of genitals. Said Gould of the bizarre painting, “it was not really a nude because I insisted on a cigarette holder” (p 94).
Her portrayals of the innocent and beloved could be tender, as in her paintings of her sons, Hartley and Richard, and of her neighbors in Spanish Harlem where she lived and worked for twenty years. Her nonfigurative work is often richly introspective, as if an elevated train track or snow-covered fire escape might symbolize human aspiration or frailty. And in portraying Andy Warhol (1970) she gives herself over to her subject’s predilection to remain a cipher; drawing his eyelids closed, he displays his lurid scars and his pristine footwear.
But her most brutal portraits combine the grotesqueries of Ensor, the bleakness of Munch, and the subtlety of a sledgehammer. She renders the unpopular director of the WPA’s Artist Project, Audrey McMahon (1940) in joyless grays and browns, as a sort of desiccated vampire with eyes like trapdoors, a nose like a newel post, and a clenched, lipless mouth. Ellie Poindexter (1962), a dealer who did not warm to Neel’s professional advances, looks, with her beady eyes, slit of a mouth, and prominent breasts, like a python who has just swallowed a pair of hamsters. Even Frank O’Hara, the much-liked poet and curator whom Neel sought out in the hopes of interesting him in her work, comes in for some rough treatment in a 1960 portrait. Reproduced in ARTnews, it was a career milestone, but Irving Sandler turned down Neel’s request to paint him because “she was like a voodoo person who would stick pins in me” (p. 246).
Despite or because of this aspect of Neel’s output—the “deliberate hideousness” ARTnews had chastised her for in the 40’s—her work struck a chord with the art world in the early 1960’s. Having achieved some visibility in the heyday of class-struggle art for her depictions of the downtrodden (who were often, in fact, her friends and neighbors), Neel was marginalized during the ascendency of Abstract Expressionism, the “great broom that swept everything else away.” But in the context of renewed interest in the human figure that was a hallmark of Pop, Neel’s tenacity gained traction.
Not that she was universally popular. Elke Solomon, curator of prints and drawings (not paintings) at the Whitney in 1974, organized the Neel retrospective. “A nasty piece of work,” she said of Neel years later (p. 289). The artist May Stevens rejects the notion that Neel was some sort of protofeminist: “She wasn’t a feminist—she was an Alice Neelist… She was totally antifeminist and antiwomen… I didn’t want anything to do with Alice” (p. 267). With her outrageous anecdotes and salty humor, she was a hit on the college lecture circuit, but feminist intellectuals felt she contributed to a cliché by discussing her work in an autobiographical, rather than a conceptual and/or historical, context. Nothing if not self-aware, Neel no doubt judged that the spectacle of a sweet-faced, gray-haired older woman giving voice to a libidinous turn of mind and a profoundly nonconformist world view would have a broader appeal—a bit of the old “drama and discordance” played for laughs.
All of which is to say that Neel did not much care whose feathers she ruffled. The world had roughed her up pretty good but she gave as well as she got. Hoban theorizes that Neel “didn’t see her subjects just as victims; she also saw them as survivors, however scarred. As such, almost all Neel’s subjects mirror her own identity” (p. 331). This seems right, but it doesn’t go far enough. The invasiveness of Neel’s portraits became her persona. Under the guise of probing others she used portraiture to retaliate against the world for the many psychic wounds she sustained. This is what made her tick, and what makes the uncomfortable, aggressive edge of her work so compelling.
Phoebe Hoban: Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (New York: St. Martin’s Press, December 2010. ISBN: 978-0-312-60748-7 512 pages, plus one 8-page b&w photo insert and two 8-page color photo inserts. $35 ($16.99 ebook)