On the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, at the foot of the escalator, hangs Alice Neel’s “Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews” (1972). It depicts a New York art couple, a painter and photographer respectively. Aside from their informal pose and bohemian air, there is nothing particularly unusual about them. The portrait even looks unfinished, with its color floating around the sitters’ heads like a cloud and trailing off to blank canvas at the left and right edges.
Still, encountering it as I did after leaving Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 (discussed by Terry R. Myers in the July/August Rail), “Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews” seemed like the perfect coda to the Matisse show, which has won virtually unanimous hosannas for its connoisseurship, technical innovations, and archival research. Neel’s painting shares Matisse’s classic subject matter, carrying it into a future beyond his lifetime. Its color is fresh and glowing, and its woozy lines, with a looseness bordering on caricature (not unlike Matisse’s portrait etchings), choreograph the couple’s contours while excavating their unvarnished humanity.
And yet, there was something missing. In its humility, its direct visual engagement, and its raffish, tossed-off feel, there was no sense of a great historical drama at play, or a larger philosophical purpose. After tracing Matisse’s journey toward an apotheosis of near-abstraction, the Olympian vistas conjured by the saga of modern art were suddenly nowhere in sight. Benny and Mary Ellen’s feet were firmly planted on their gritty apartment floor. I found this absence liberating.
We have all been weaned on the thesis of modernism as a grand project—the image of Picasso and Braque hitched together on the cliffs of Cubism comes to mind, as does de Kooning’s tag about Pollock cracking the AbExers’ ice. The only problem with this paradigm is how badly it flies in the face of the facts. The backtracking that these artists and many of their cohorts periodically undertook was often greeted with derision because it was deemed a betrayal of a greater cause. A restless imagination, it would seem, has always been an unreliable ally.
No matter. The traditional eschatology of 20th century art history—that modern art’s destiny lies in formal purity—still appears to be operating, at least on a subliminal level, despite the inroads of what used be called pluralism, but what I would prefer to think of as the multiplicities of world art. You might be inclined to stack this up to the lingering influence of Clement Greenberg, who, after 16 years in the grave, should otherwise be allowed to rest in peace. However, I believe that it has more to do with our rage for quantification, and with the desire to avoid the pitfalls and anxieties entailed in actually having to look at a work of art.
The evolution of international contemporary art over the past couple of decades can be characterized as the ascendancy of the impersonal. What has been circulating through biennials and museum surveys deals primarily with philosophical, political, social, environmental, psychological, or economic issues. Its premise and methodology can be clearly described in a grant proposal, press release, or wall text. Although there are artists whose work falls within this categorization yet transcends its limitations (Christoph Büchel, Regina José Galindo, and El Anatsui are obvious examples), by and large this development has led to an epidemic of specialization and branding, heavily footnoted by graduate seminar reading lists, as the basis of a career.
Such intellectual bona fides not only flatter the audience, but also serve as external criteria for the notoriously tricky business of assessing a work of art for institutional approval (including investment by the collector class). In this process, verbal explication often outweighs visual appraisal, and the notion of an artwork as its own world of ideas, most of them ambiguous and resistant to analysis, is lost.
The painting by Alice Neel is a testament to art history not as an arc, but as a maze. Creative paths turn, stop, retreat, return. Influences seep in from unlikely and abandoned corners. Nothing is cut and dried or easily explained. Look at Benny and Mary Ellen. They seem lost and lonely. They are made of paint—a disreputable medium put to disreputable ends: the illusion of flesh, fabric, and hair. Yet to gaze upon them is to know that their flaws are our flaws, their lives are our lives. And how much more beautiful it is to remain earthbound—and human—than to ride the winged chariots of aesthetic certitude.
Alice Neel wasn’t a mountaineer or an icebreaker. She lived her life. She painted her friends. Her art is private and unpretentious. It exists on a plane devoid of isms, factions, and secular religions, where artists no longer roam as revolutionaries, titans, or demigods. The mantle of history is elsewhere.